|A heads up to come and see us (Marvin Sewell, guitar, Dana Leong, cello, and me, voice) at the 55 Bar, TONIGHT, Friday, August 9.
Meanwhile, I am in sore need of a break from what started out as a mild bit of decluttering/feng shui and has now turned into a full on palarva. And I haven’t even started on the clothes and shoes – for example the high heeled leopard pumps that I allowed some stranger in the shop to persuade me to buy: “You have to buy them! High heeled leopard pumps are our sneakers!” – “our”, I now realize, referring to a particular group of idiots who believes people who say they can go jogging in shoes that are too high to even stand in, let alone walk in.
Which reminds me of the time I was shopping with my friend Robin and excitedly heard myself saying: “Those shoes are just perfect for … sitting down!” However, unlike me, she didn’t buy them – basically because walking in them would have required being on all fours. Meanwhile, those damn high heeled leopard pumps did fit me in the shop! I swear! And speaking of mysteries (and back to feng shui) …. what was I even doing with a giant bag of arborial (wot?) rice in the first place, and how did it quietly live in my fridge untouched for eight years!
Turns out that de-cluttering is a bit like jogging. Sounds like a great idea and it’s easy to start. But then after a few hours (or minutes, if it’s jogging, of course) you think, what am I doing? Only, instead of like jogging, where you can pretend you were just sprinting to the local wine bar for an emergency glass of wine, a few hours into de-cluttering, your place looks like a teenager’s bedroom. It’s like swallowing a raw egg – once you start you have to keep going. (What? You never ate a raw egg?!)
However, my newly painted fridge (yes, there is a thing called fridge paint) is now gleaming white, instead of dirty beige, and my landlord is giving me a new WHITE stove (the correct color for that “gua’ of my apartment). And my super is laying me a new kitchen floor (can this be due to cleaning up my “helpful people” gua?) And since I’ve got the paint tin open and I forgot to buy mineral spirits to wash my brush, I’ve been going mad, fridge-painting everything – including the kitchen cupboards, the wall around the stove and the kitchen window. And a green filing cabinet. Aaaah! It will feel fab when it is done. Unlike raw egg ingesting.
Which brings me to tonight (Friday) …. eggnog anyone? Actually, do they even sell it at the 55? Maybe not. But they do have emergency wine and other choice beverages, and Kirby to dispense them at the bar and me and Dana (Leong on cello) and Marvin(Sewell on guitar) to entertain you, and Pascalito is going to sit in on Avec le Temps (singing in real French!) and his mum, a visiting singer from France will sing a song. It will be fun, especially if you come! And I’ll wear my leopard pumps (just perfect for sitting on the bar stool!)
See you there, I hope! My Top Ten Feng Shui tips below:
Oh look, I ran out of space.
I have been feeling so guilty about not blogging here for nearly two weeks. I was in London, which was fantastic in some ways. One of my very best friends turned 50 and I had to give a speech at her dinner party for 50 (in their back garden. In a tent. In a Force 10 rainstorm). And sing a song written by her ten year old. A marvelous song. But my rendition … well, … (as the Birthday Girl herself pointed out) … think, Phoebe on Friends singing ‘Smelly Cat’. I also saw Sheila Jordan perform three times — each time more fantastic than the last (to see my review of her Royal Opera House gig, click here)– and got to chat with one of my all-time heroines, who I ran into in the audience — Norma Winstone. And I saw Billy perform at Queen Elizabeth Hall with Carla Bley (he is a Lost Chord) and they got a standing ovation. Here is a review in the Daily Telegraph of the performance. And here is a picture of them all. They do look rather lost.
My own gig at Pizza on the Park was … well, the first set was pretty good, I think. It’s always hard to know. Certainly it had its moments. But we were under-rehearsed, so the second set was a bit shambolic. In my opinion. But … see … you can’t always be on. However, it was sold out (always gratifying) and the audience was wonderfully appreciative. And overall, I had a wonderful time in London. It was incredible to see my own boyfriend perform in my own home town and get to stay in swanky hotel with him for two nights. And, as an added bonus, I was recognized quite randomly in three different places by three strangers as “Tessa Souter” (when this happens, as it has — gasp! — four times in the past few months, it always feels like this Tessa Souter is someone else who I am impersonating).
Here is a gratuitous video of my UK drummer, the amazing Winston Clifford, singing my song Usha’s Wedding with me. This is a couple of years old (our version on November 12 was miles better) and the sound isn’t ideal. But it gives an impression. Winston, by the way, can sing better than anyone! Note perfect John Coltrane solos! Need I say more? I love his vocal tone. I can’t remember how I discovered he could sing but I am so glad I did. He sings this with me every time I play in London.
Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and … Me! You ask…?
So the title of this blog … Well, this weekend I had severe chest pains for the third time this week, so I called my best friend Neil and he insisted I call his best friend, doctor turned novelist Ethan Canin (who introduced us in San Francisco 15 years ago when I was a writer and I was the first woman member of the Writer’s Grotto), and he insisted I go to ER at Bellevue Hospital where I was put to the front of the line at once by a nurse. I didn’t see that it even was a line until she left and guiltily repositioned myself at the back and got shouted at when she returned to find me there. “Did anyone tell you to move?” Er, no. “So why are you standing there instead of here?” Well, I saw there was a line and … “You’ve got chest pains, right?” Yes. “So get back to the front!” And she shouted at the line like it was their fault for looking at me wrong. Sort of Nurse Ratchet, but in a good way.
Next I was whisked off on a stretcher-cum-bed thingie and X-rayed and EKG’d and hooked up to heart monitor (two baths later I am still scraping off the gunk they use to stick them on with) and blood pressure machine for what turned out to be the entire weekend in ER because they had no beds in the heart section (where I would have been put had they had any beds there).
Now, People, the Emergency Room of a public hospital is no place to get actual SLEEP. The rotating cast of characters was loud. The man in the bed to my left, thankfully hidden behind a curtain, was shouting incoherently for about half an hour, until the doctor arrived and then he very lucidly asked for: “Ah yes, two Percoset, please. 300 milligrams!” The doctor wanted to know why he wanted it. “It takes away everything, Nurse. EVERYTHING! All of Vietnam, all of the pain, the pus, … all gone!” Actually I’m a doctor, she said and we don’t just give people Percoset when they ask for it. “I need it, doc. For the pus!” Pus? “Yes, pus! That’s another word for pain. I read it in the medical dictionary. You’re a doctor and you don’t even know that!” He was sent off with Ibuprofin. But see, he probably shouldn’t have started out calling her “Nurse.”
As a germ phobe, I can think of better places to spend the night. The bed next to mine had must have been the designated bed for cough-ers — one of whom thought she might have H1N1 (she was sent home, so I think she was fine). Another woman, in with exactly the same symptoms as mine got dispatched home — after she’d eaten dinner. Ethan thought perhaps because she was in every week. I couldn’t eat the food (ham and cheese sandwiches and green jello) so Neil turned up with an enormous bag of food, but every time I reached for it someone behind another curtain would make awful, long, heart-wrenching, choking noises. He was also loudly questioned about how often he pooed and whether he wanted to use a bed pan or have a diaper put on. He chose the latter. As I quietly returned my plastic bag of food to the shelf under my stretcher-cum-bed thingie.
Dozing was the only thing possible. I got woken up at various intervals by people shouting (“Im going to get my attorney on to those cops for bringing me here. He’s a scary man. He’s going to sue your asses!”). Or putting in their drug orders (one man recited a huge list — none of which were available, but he must have had something serious because they gave him Morphine). Or to the sight of a man with his hands cuffed behind his back being marched past the end of my bed by a cop (there are almost as many cops as nurses in Bellevue ER), and even a group of itinerent types, awkwardly handcuffed together, shuffling through the ward. And lots of bright young people in red polo shirts, who turned out to be volunteers. I mean ALL NIGHT! Never again let me hear anyone complain about “young people today.”
I can’t even tell you how many times I was woken up to have my temperature taken or to be jacked up to a drip because my blood pressure was … well, I say “dangerously low” (like 54 over 40) but is there any such thing as that when it comes to blood pressure. Even the daytime doctor agreed with me when I pointed that out. It’s usually 90/60 — the blood pressure of a five year old child. When I told him that I had once been told by a doctor that I had a “beautiful small heart”, he said that would explain my low blood pressure and then ran off excitedly to see the X-ray for himself.
No, we don’t know why I am getting chest pains. I suspect stress, which makes it a relevant blog on this mad life I (and maybe you) have chosen to live. Here is MY diagnosis: I collect feelings in my chest. If I see an injury it always gives me a sharp pain there. If I relax, that is where I get a tickly feeling. When I am moved by music, my chest is where I feel it. Beautiful music vibrates like a pain in my breastbone. So my theory (the doctors are still working on theirs) is that I am getting all stressed up in the night while I sleep and waking up with chest pains. Bud Powell and Charlie Parker (finally, the blog title explained!) also made visits to Bellevue, so I am in good jazz company.
Meanwhile, I can’t wait for Billy to get back on Saturday from the European tour. Poor thing was super worried when he got the message that I was in ER — not helped by the fact that my phone died while I was there and he couldn’t get in touch with me. Well, I say “poor thing” but he is ending his tour in Monaco, and will have the day off in Nice (poor darling!) over Thanksgiving. His soothing presence will have to suffice in lieu of my coming up with a fabulous money-making idea which will keep me in the manner to which I wish to become accustomed while I focus on my MUSIC alone, instead of all the trillions of things that go along with living day to day at the same time as feeding the constantly Hungry Baby of this “career” of mine.
Meanwhile, lucky me that I got so well taken care of this weekend, even though I didn’t really have the time to spare, and (in my rush to leave) had left my pot of paint open with the brush on top of it so it was all dried out when I got home. And I got to witness some very gentle, sweet people who are in the world looking out for all of us. Nurses and doctors are really not just in it for the money. They are — inspiringly — patient and kind, even (perhaps even particularly) when refusing to hand out Percoset like Hallowe’en candy.
Today I have a question to answer, which MP left today on Day 1 of the blog.
Question: “I have started on my 5 year plan, resolved to leave “realistic” out of it, and come up with something inspiring and fantastic. A few days into this assignment, however, and I am finding that I am having trouble dreaming and visualizing. Have I become resolved to settling? I don’t think so, because I am not comfortable here, either. Tips, pointers, encouragement??? Any insight would be most appreciated.”
Answer: [book excerpt]
By now we’ve all heard that hackneyed Goethe quote: “Whatever you think you can do or believe you can, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power in it.” If only it were that simple. But it’s not. Because, although starting is important (duh!), at no point are you more vulnerable to stopping dead in your tracks than at the beginning. As Martha Graham once said: “The ordeal of isolation, the ordeal of loneliness, the ordeal of doubt, the ordeal of vulnerability which it takes to compose in any medium is hard to face.”
It’s no wonder so many of us give up before we even begin.
Have you heard of Charlotte Bronte’s novel Emma? No? Ah.That will be because when she showed the first few pages to her new husband (she married late, thank goodness) he said: “Hmm. Not up to your usual standard, dearest….” And she never wrote another word, of that, or any other novel, ever again.
So, MP, are you being your own “Mr Bronte”? Is the problem with your dreaming and visualizing coming from your inability to really believe in the outcome. Are you being too hard on yourself, thinking who the hell do you think you are? Are you stumbling over visualizing all the steps it will take to get there?
For any or all of the above, my advice is to go one small step at a time. “You don’t have to take the whole staircase,” to quote Dr. Martin Luther King. “Just take the first step.”
For example, keep visualizing yourself collecting your Oscar or Grammy or Whitbread or Nobel or other relevant prize. But then visualize only the NEXT step towards it. Not all the steps.
When I started singing, all I had to do was trundle along to the next open mic. The idea of having a CD, let alone three CDs as I do now, was miles away in my mind. It was a dream, perhaps, but absolutely not something I considered a real possibility. The same with being a journalist. When I got my first job as an editorial assistant, actually writing for magazines was a dream but, again, not something I really thought would happen. But I faithfully took the first step by applying for (and beating out a hundred others to get) a job as a lowly editorial assistant at Parents magazine.
Did I think I would one day be writing for The Times or Elle or Vogue — which is what I ended up doing? Absolutely. er… Not. And when I got my first commission, when the Parents editor just announced at a meeting one day that I was going to be doing a piece for the next issue on introducing children to the opera and ballet and other adult leisure pursuits, I was shocked. And terrified.
So I called my writer friend, Sarah Litvinoff, author of The Confidence Plan: Essential Steps to a New You, who at the time I barely knew, and asked if I could read her my first paragraph over the phone. “Of course!” she said. When I’d finished she said: “Oh, it’s wonderful. I can’t WAIT to hear the next paragraph!” Eventually, paragraph by paragraph (all read to Sarah over the phone), I finished it.
Actually, even while I was writing this book, I struggled with the idea of writing an entire book, until my editor at Random House told me to think of each chapter as its own long article. That made it much more manageable.
So my advice to MP at this stage is:
- Keep visualizing the “end”, in a very light way, without thinking at all about allthe steps it will take to get there.
- Think about ONLY the very nextstep — going to the next open mic, applying for magazine jobs, writing the next paragraph….
- Enlist the cheer-leading skills of a friend who believes in you and (very importantly) the possibilities for you.
- For crying out loud, don’t ask “Mr Bronte” what he thinks — even if he’s you.
Let me know if that helps.
So I am back from LA which was on fire (literally!) and hot! Not in a good way. I have never been so hot in LA. But I did get to play with the amazing Hamilton Price (bass) and Joe La Barbera (drums) and Jason, of course. And I got to add names to my mailing list and was informed by some Japanese people there that I am “big in Japan” (like Tom Waits said!) because of my album Nights of Key Largo, and Hajime Sato from Eastwind Import even turned up with a VINYL copy of that album for me to sign! If you are an audiophile and like the idea of having your own vinyl copy of my CD — among many others to choose from, check out www.eastwindimport.com. And I got a lovely review from Don Heckman which appeared in his wonderful International Review of Music. And I stayed with my California mum. But please, California, try not to burst into flames next time I come!
My singer friend Kate Geller suggested I write a blog for other singers on how to take care of your voice on the road. So … here are my travel tips for singers, for voice/health AND general tips – which actually apply to all frequent fliers. Feel free to add tips and comments.
1. I never go anywhere without my ‘travel scarf’. This is a huge wool scarf which doubles as an extra blanket on the plane, since the doll-sized plane-issue ones generally don’t cut it. Or sometimes I roll it up and use it as a back support or a second-rate but better-than-nothing neck pillow (see item 11).
SCARF/BLANKET/NECK PILLOW/GLAMOROUS SHAWL, BACKSTAGE WITH TESSA AND DANIEL KRAMER
2. Unless you are appearing in the same place more than twice, don’t take more than two — okay, three — outfits. And no more than two pairs of shoes and earrings/accessories. You think you will but you won’t use more than this, and the more you take, the more time you have to faff about in the hotel room in front of the mirror. Not to mention carrying it all… which brings me to ….
3. I take in my HAND BAGGAGE (more on hand baggage in a min) one of those felt covered freezable cold packs because carrying heavy bags has been known to throw out my back — though not since my new suitcase (see item 7). I find the cold pack works for me. Some of you may prefer hot ones. Find out which is best for you and pack one — or both. Also pack in your hand baggage good painkillers — just in case.
4. Okay, so hand baggage. Always pack at least one copy of all the music you will need and take at least one box of CDs in your carry-on. That way, when you’re waiting around for your bags at the airport and they DON’T COME (see Letter From Tokyo 1 in February folder of this blog), you will be covered. Naturally, since you have taken this precaution, your bags will arrive. But don’t chance it! The two (packing what you need in your carry-on bag and the checked luggage arriving on time) are definitely related, This is known in England as “sod’s law” — though I am not sure what a sod is in this context.
5. Pack a pen with your passport to answer all the landing forms questions, like “Are you bringing any guns/bombs/plutonium?” “Did you pack any livestock?” “Have you petted any rabied animals while you were away?” “Are you carrying more than $10,000 in cash?” (Hah!) “
6. Take small toiletries items in a separate quart sized ziploc bag and put it in your carry-on case near the top so you can whip it out when you need to.
7. My four-wheeled suitcase has changed my life. CHANGED MY LIFE! It practically pushes itself, spins in every direction and I would marry it, if I weren’t already taken — by the very man who (perhaps realizing I would develop “feelings” for my wonder-case) advised me not to buy it. Now I want a four-wheeled carry-on because my tiny carry-on bag (with only TWO wheels) feels like it weighs twice as much as the giant one. I bought it at Marshalls, or Filene’s Basement or Daffy’s, for $79 – reduced from $300-something. I have had many cheap suitcases over the years and they are not worth the savings. Trust me.
8. I have a packing checklist on my computer which I update before and after every journey. When I am going out of town to perform, I print it and check off everything as I get to it. It has on it things to pack, things to do (like charge cell phone or empty trash, or freeze/throw out perishables). I have two checklists — one for domestic and one for international travel.
9. Take a hairbrush, minimal makeup (i.e., lipstick) and sunglasses in your hand baggage. I was once met at the airport at 4am (after 20 hours traveling) WITH TV CAMERAS! Thankfully I had my hooded coat to cover up as much as possible of my face and hair but …. Let’s just say that now I know why movie stars don’t go anywhere without their movie star glasses. And, since that experience, neither do I!
10. I take an atomizer filled with water to spritz my face throughout the flight. It helps to counteract the dehydration far more (and less messily) than moisturizer.
11. My other best friend when I travel is my bead-filled neck pillow. I sewed a sort of tie on it so I can actually WEAR it. This also means that I don’t absent-mindedly drop it on the bathroom floor because I forgot to remove it. It allows me to sleep sitting up on a plane. Without it, I can NOT sleep. During a six-hour layover at Moscow airport recently, I tied it into a ball so it remained firm, put it on my 4-wheeled suitcase, leaned forward and … I slept! Just little 20-minute cat naps at a time, but it helped. I won’t pretend I arrived “rested”, but without that little pillow there is NO WAY I would have been able to sleep at all and I would have been completely fried on arrival.
NECK PILLOW/WARMER WITH NATTY TRIM
12. FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD! What’s this doing under “packing”, right? Or have you been to Siberia? (see Siberia blog). Or, indeed, Japan (see Letter from Tokyo 1), when I woke up with jet lag at 2am and, after counting the hours until breakfast discovered that it was soup and rice. Or maybe your alarm didn’t wake you after your 25-hour journey to get somewhere and you missed breakfast. Or you have a ten hour layover at an aiport like Palermo, Scicily (I know, Italy, right? What happened?) or Moscow SVO. Last time I went to Russia, I took four protein bars (giant kind) and five balance bars. Even though I stayed at two nice hotels, I needed them. In fact, I ran out. So pack food – breakfast bars, protein bars, whatever you need for sustenance. And if you find yourself in Siberia, fake a dizzy spell near a supermarket! The one I went to was better stocked than any supermarket I have ever seen in the world – though of course telling the difference between sour cream and yogurt in Cyrillic is a bit of a challenge.
EXTRA PLANE STUFF
1. Last time I went to London, it was snowing there and here, so my boyfriend told me to call ahead and check for cancellations. The flight was canceled and rescheduled. So I got to spend an extra day with him, instead of sleeping on my suitcase at the airport or — worse! — doing what singer Sheila Jordan did recently, shelling out another $60 to get a cab back home to wait for the next flight. Yikes! If the weather looks the slightest bit dodgy, call ahead.
2. Plane background noise is deceptively loud. This is one of all sorts of things I never noticed before I was a singer, but after an 8-hour flight during which you didn’t let your seat-mate get a word in edgeways, a girl/boy can actually lose her/his voice!
TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF
It is fabulous to be your own instrument — which is what singers are. BUT … the downside is, if you fall ill … you can sound like … well, imagine a saxophone that’s been left out in the rain for a week. Sadly, people won’t realize that NORMALLY (of course!) you sing like Sarah Vaughan at her peak!
SARAH VAUGHAN AT HER ‘CRAZY AND MIXED UP’ PEAK
Your frog in the throat off notes — assuming you can even get a note OUT — will be their first impression and, you know what they say about first impressions. I read recently about a Broadway actress-singer who was disparaged by a reviewer for not being able to hit the high notes. People! She had a cold!!! Warning: I once sang with a horrible cold. Not only did I sound like shite on the nite, I then couldn’t SPEAK for six weeks afterwards. You really don’t realize how amazingly useful speaking is until you lose your voice. Writing notes to the people in the supermarket when you can’t find something in the aisles is surprisingly laborious – especially when they can’t read your hurried handwriting. And the phone … fuggedaboutit! One of the most frustrating and emotionally trying six weeks of my life. So you should do everything you can to head off ANYTHING respiratory at the pass. Here are some of my health tips:
1. STAY WARM
Okay… remember that scarf? This wonderful invention was actually created to keep your neck warm. Opera singers wear their scarves everywhere and that is because they are effective! Staying warm is one of the best ways to stay healthy. Or is it that getting cold can make you ill? Whichever, a scarf is your best friend! If I have been in the cold and am not wrapped up enough or (horrors!) went out without my scarf, I ALWAYS have a boiling hot bath when I get in. This also works. Raising your temperature is the secret, apparently. If a boiling hot bath or shower is not an option (See Letter from Siberia post in 2008 folder to read about traveling 16 hours between gigs in Siberia on a train. No bath. No windows.) Get out your travel scarf and roll yourself up in it.
2. VICK’S FIRST DEFENCE
My friend Adrian Hedley told me about this. It works! That Siberian train journey I mentioned … the musical director got a horrible cold and actually lost his voice. He also had this habit of getting right up on you to talk. But First Defense, a nasal spray, kept me healthy. No, I didn’t squirt it on him when he got too close! (Only do this in a medical emergency!) I squirted it on me! Maybe it was the placebo effect, but I don’t think so. I think First Defense is a UK product. If so, the American equivalent is probably ZICAM. I personally like the candy version. I also really like the swabs — but it is absurdly expensive because you are supposed to throw away the swab after each swabbing.
3. SPEAK UP
If anyone gets too close to you, don’t be afraid to put a hanky over your mouth and say, “I’m sorry. I am a singer and I can’t afford to get ill.” People understand. But, even if they don’t, you have to do it. I haven’t had to do this yet, but if I sat next to someone on the plane who was ill I would ask to switch seats. It might feel a bit rude, but you can do it nicely. At least you’re not squirting them with First Defense.
4. VITAMIN C
Someone once told me that taking 1,000 mg doses of Vitamin C every hour or so, gets rid of a cold quickly. I have found this very effective. I don’t think you need to spend a bomb on Airbourne. My very favorites are Rite Aid chewable Vitamin C tablets with acerola. They are kind of tart, which seems to work on breaking down the — ahem — phlegm right away. I use Vitamin C like this as a preventive and as a cure.
If you arrive somewhere and you get ill, go to bed. Even a few hours of BED-rest — i.e., actually lying down — really helps. When I was in Beirut I got flu on the first day and, canceling the gig not being an option, spent every day in bed and dragged myself out of bed every night to sing. Okay, I wasn’t my best for the first few days, but I got through it. This was before I knew about the wonder-drugs, First Defense and Zicam.
6. KEEP YOUR HANDS CLEAN
Most germs are communicated via the hands. That means whenever you touch a doorknob, or hold a railing, whoever held it before you, if they had a cold, will have left those germs. It is a singer’s lot to be a germ-phobe. My friend Sue, who is not a singer, but knows far too many than is probably good for her mental health, carries sachets of hand-sanitizing wipes with her everywhere she goes. The seriousness with which she once handed me one when we were out somewhere reminded me of the time my mum told me she was VERY worried about me being in America: “I hope you are wearing at least SPF 30!” (It is my duty to look young for my age, so that no one wonders how old she is). I keep one of those mini hand sanitizing sprays in the same zipper pencil case where I keep my passport – and SPF 30 dabber.
7. GET THE FLU JAB
Since I lost my health insurance (don’t get me started!) I haven’t yet discovered where to get these done, but in my opinion, better to be safe than sorry. I used to get one every year. However, there are health warnings so you should weigh the risks. And, it goes without saying, if you are ill just don’t have injections of any kind.
8. STAY HYRDATED
Drink plenty of water during a flight to stay hydrated. In fact, it kind of ‘oils’ the vocal chords to be hydrated at all times, flying or not. So you should be drinking at least eight glasses a day. Call me a baby, but I find it easier to drink more water if I use a straw.
These tips are not in my book Anything I Can Do You Can Do Better (Random House-Vemilion). But it has many others on navigating your way around the freelance artist’s life, and you might know some of the people in it (including me). www.amazon.co.uk
Here I am in the most comfortable bed on EARTH, leaning against SIX of the most comfortable pillows I have ever leaned against, at the Marriott Grand in Moscow. This is a far, far cry from the Siberian train tour of last November. In fact, this entire trip, I have had not one bad meal! Samara was pretty amazing. A beautiful city with enormously palatial wooden mansions everywhere. I arrived at 2am, after a 25-hour journey (including two layovers and a one hour drive from Samara airport, which is in the middle of nowhere and a little scary in the middle of the dark black night with two men in Russian hats who you don’t know), and walking up the endless corridor to my room — all super-high ceilings and closed doors — was spookily reminiscent of ‘The Shining’ but without the ghostly children on tricycles.
The gigs were fab. The Samara Philharmonic was beautiful and I met some lovely people. And I got to sing my song Usha’s Wedding with a phenomenal Russian singer called Lera, who was just amazing. I have sung that song with tons of people and it always amazes me what different people do with it, especially given that they have never heard it before. This girl was kind of like a Russian Lila Downs (who once actually sang it with me on it at the 55 Bar, when I discovered her in the audience), only wilder. I didn’t take pix of the audience, which is a drag. But I think I took some of the hotel which I will post later. Meanwhile, I was sent these pictures by the wonderful photographer Vladmir Korobitzyn.
Then I flew to Moscow just in time to hit rush hour traffic. The journey that will take me 25 minutes tomorrow morning at 3am (cough!), took actually THREE HOURS that day. But I didn’t mind because I was super tired and, until we hit almost standstill traffic, I had been stressfully having to “air drive” in the back seat, due to scary autobahn-esque driving all around me. It’s very tiring pressing your foot on imaginary brakes and leaning very very hard in one direction (which is how you steer when you are air driving), so it was such a relief when that ceased to be necessary. I spent the rest of the “drive” passed out on the back seat — probably drooling, I was so fried. Flying about to gigs is … hard work! And I’d had a SIX HOUR layover in Moscow on the way to Samara which is, surprisingly, kind of primitive. There isn’t even an escalator to the next level. Hello? — bags!
Homeless dogs look pleadingly at you in the airport cafes (actually they roam in packs all over Moscow, and huddle together in the subways when it’s cold, like little families — which is kind of sad and sweet at the same time). Even at the information desk, no one speaks English, which was a bit unhelpful. And there was no seat on the loo! Or perhaps it was misplaced because I did notice a loo brush holder and loo brush OUTSIDE the actual loo. Otherwise, Russia rules. Right now the streets are full of men carrying flowers to give to the women in their lives, because this weekend is a national holiday called Woman’s Day. So much more civilized than Mother’s Day. I mean, what if you aren’t a mother, or don’t have one? Woman’s Day is so inclusive! And the women here! So beautiful! Russian women are from the 1960s — beautifully turned out and terribly feminine. I mean, only a Russian woman would wear spike heels to breakfast, right?
Meanwhile, I had a magnificent first night at the club in Moscow last night, where the crowd was cheering and whooping and bought 33 CDs off me. Hooray! If tonight is even half as much fun I’ll be happy!
HAPPY WOMAN’S DAY!
Moscow was truly amazing! Despite my fear that the 1753 seats of the absurdly gigantic venue [the Moscow International Performing Arts Center] would actually only have TWO bums on them, the gig was one of the most fun of my life! “Do you think there will be anyone there?” I said, mournfully, to the presenter’s assistant in the dressing room, where I was putting on makeup JUST IN CASE anyone had come. And she laughed and said: “Oh yes!”
When I got out there, people filled all of downstairs and some of the side seats and Francis (my percussionist, who I had shipped in from Tokyo, who has better eyesight than I do — okay, what I mean is, isn’t too vain to wearhis glasses) said that the upper deck was pack-ed (it is two syllables when he says it, cos he is Brazilian) and that there were maybe 1500 people there. The booker and all his staff were hugging me in the break, having been perhaps almost as concerned as I had been BEFORE the gig that the scruff bag (me) who’d got off Aeroflot after the 9 hour flight from hell the previous day was going to be able to pull it off.
I had been terrified that the entire thing was going to be awful. The guys (and me) were exhausted and two of them had arrived on the day. And Aeroflot is indeed the worst airline I have ever flown (the man next to me groaned for the entire flight — I mean ACTUAL groaning cos he had forgotten his jacket and it was minus 10 in the cabin… which was also ominously creaking the whole way). But although between sets and before the gig the band members were semi comatose, on stage they were like those toys you press the bottom of and they collapse and then you release it and they spring upright. They were amazing. You would never in a million years think they had just landed. On Aeroflot!
And the audience was WILD! Cheering. shouting ‘Bravo’ mid songs, clapping at the opening bars of songs they knew (including White Room). I felt like they knew me already and I knew them. Whatever people say about Russians being cold … well they must have been lying. Someone else said the audience wouldn’t speak English. Another flagrant untruth. They were even laughing at my jokes (though someone told us afterwards that the people next to her kept nudging her to translate certain songs). And at the end we got a STANDING OVATION. From 1500 people. I felt like or someone (only with my own hair). And I was surprised how comfortable I felt. Then again, the hugest ham I know (me) comfortable in front of a 1500-strong cheering crowd, who got my jokes too? Duh!
Oh, and the POSTER outside!!! Santi saw it as we were driven to the venue and said “Jesus! Isn’t that you?” I took a pic (okay, several pics — for Mum, of course!).
But I wish I had brought more CDs. By the time Irina had got out into the foyer, they had already sold out of the only 60 I had brought (imagining I would be carrying home 58, since I’d been expecting only two bums on seats). And the next day in the hotel a couple, who had been at the gig the night before, saw me in the foyer and bought two that I’d forgotten to give the presenter and the woman was kissing my photo and was nearly in tears telling me (in Russian) how much she had enjoyed the gig (an expressive people!).
Otherwise, I am having a bit of a difficult time not speaking Russian. The subways (Greco-Roman temples outside and unbelievably beautiful — like the Met or the National Gallery or something — on the inside) are swarming with non-English speaking (how dare they?) Russians who, not realizing I am, in , a massive big star of Elton John proportions (only with my own hair), are impatient with my plaintive: “Er… can you point on this map here to where we actually are now?” — perhaps because they don’t quite believe I can’t see that for myself. (I am a directional dyslexic). In fact, the reason I am an expert on the subway stations here is because I have seen them all by now, having been to the end of most of the lines before realizing, oh, I must have missed my stop. And since I can’t speak Russian and say: “Don’t you realize I am Elton John?” I am being shouted at a lot by subway staff because it turns out there are distinct exits and entrances and I can’t read which is which (yikes!). And I went to bed hungry last night cos no one in the hotel speaks English and the room service menu is in Russian. Sigh.
I did manage to score a night at the Ritz Carlton, on the back of writing an article for British ELLE on Moscow. I will tell you that I woke up the next day and I literally looked ten years younger. The bed was amazing. HAPPY THANKSGIVING! Or, as we say in Russia…. RRY [upside down R] 3XX FLJXCVB-ING!
July 2007 So … Does anyone out there know whether Mercury or some other planet of vital importance is in retrograde? First I spent the flight over sitting next to two unaccompanied children with very small bladders. I had the aisle seat. (Need I say more?) They could also sleep in any position (which meant me spending much of the flight with a small foot in my face).
But they were sweet when they were awake (and not needing to pee). They engaged me in conversation about elephants and robots (who doesn’t love robots?) and other things that I think more adults should talk about. And they were very sympathetic when I described my deprived childhood (Mum would not let me have an elephant for my birthday when I was four. Some cock and bull excuse about the garden not being big enough!). By the way, for those of you who know my mum, she was on top form when I saw her in London this time. She didn’t mention the dress not being red — though, as we hugged hello, she did whisper in my ear, “Stand up straight, darling!” Mums! Got to love them! (Or else!)
Back at Tokyo airport the woman at immigration wouldn’t let me through cos, knowing I was being picked up, I hadn’t written down the address I was going to. I made up a hotel — as advised by a very nice woman who was on her way to … the Ritz Carlton! Of course I didn’t look like I could possibly be the type to be staying there, being somewhat crumpled and baggy eyed with a foot shaped dent on the side of my head. But I wrote it down and she let me through anyway, thank goodness.
Then, after waiting patiently by the only moving baggage carousel for miles until there were no bags on it (this took some time), I was a bit concerned when my luggage was not forthcoming. “Oh this is the Texas plane baggage!” they explained. “Your bag is over by the counter.” Phew! However, it turned out, no one had seen my OTHER bag. Yes, THAT bag. The one with the microphone and music and shoes in it. The one with my ice pack — which would have been very useful right now cos — guess what? — I just put my back out! (stress-induced). The one with all my makeup in it! Yes. THAT bag that STILL hasn’t arrived and which Newark (who I blame entirely, since everyone at Narita was adorable) seems to know nothing about. As I walked out I noticed I was the last person to leave the airport.
At the hotel (no, I am not staying at the RC) I fell asleep with no dinner and woke up at 2 am and began literally counting the minutes (3000 or maybe 300, I’m not very good at sums!) until 7 when breakfast was served. At dead on 7 I ran to the dining room where I found a buffet breakfast of … er … soup, shredded lettuce, some sort of roll with currants in it and (thank God!) toast! And (more groveling thanks) coffee! Okay, weak coffee. “People! This coffee is weak!” (Of course I didn’t say that, but don’t they realize a New Yorker is staying at their establishment!). I know, I know. You’d think a girl would be grateful for anything after waiting FIVE HOURS to eat.
You would be wrong.
But it could have been worse. It could have been my friend’s journey from hell which was a catalogue of disasters culminating in being trapped at the airport (due to thunderstorms) for three hours with no AC or food or drink and mournfully looking out of the window to see another waiting plane on the runway struck by lightning and burst into flames! On second thoughts …no … actually culminating in getting home to discover she had forgotten her door key! So you see why I’m wondering about Mercury retrograde.
But the good news is that, while shopping for ice packs, I noticed that shampoo is indeed available for under five dollars!Contrary to all reports that it would set me back $100 a bottle.
July 2007 – LETTER FROM TOKYO 2 [DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER]
I only just got Internet hooked up to my PC at home, which is why you haven’t heard from me before. And yes (those who asked) I did feel the earthquake. The entire house rattled and swayed from side to side. Bit scary. More scary, though, is the fact that the nuclear power plant at the site of the earthquake’s epicenter is in danger of blowing up.
Meanwhile, Tokyo is a fascinating mix of extremes. Tiny little back streets are overshadowed by Blade Runner-esque skyscrapers. Run down wooden shacks are sandwiched between posh apartment buildings. Neon-illuminated boulevards hide dark, quiet side streets where you might come across a cool bar or an all night pet store for drunken impulse puppy-buying — Paris Hilton-sized dogs are de regeur. This little chap tempted me every night on the way home from work.
And the super-strict Japanese work ethic is offset by after work drinking binges which means that at 2am, I am invariably stepping over dark suited businessmen, still impeccably dressed, slumped on the ground in a drunken stupor, or lying beside a little mound of vomit. Or a group of teens will rush by carrying friends in their arms.
Meanwhile …Performing to strangers is a bit strange anyway, but it’s something else entirely performing to desperately rich strangers who are not particularly listening because, to them, 25,000 yen ($25) is a small fry table charge in comparison to the $18,000 (yes, eighteen thousand dollar) MARTINI on the menu. Here are Philip and me. You have to dress in cocktail attire “at all times”! The one time I accidentally went to help the guys set up, wearing a white, strapless summer dress and sandals, I was told off. This dress got the thumbs up from S., the lady in charge of training all the waitstaff.
The “Diamonds Are Forever Martini” contains a one carat diamond, which — assuming the recipient hasn’t choked on it already — is whipped away by the hotel (hopefully after you have finished your drink!) to be set into an engagement ring. I was given the sheet music yesterday because apparently someone is proposing to his girlfriend next month and I have to sing the song at some point during the proceedings.
If you don’t know the lyrics: “…they won’t leave in the night, there’s no fear that they might desert me. Nothing hides in the heart to hurt me…unlike men the diamonds linger (rhymes with finger). Hold one up and then caress it, touch it stroke it and undress it(!). Men are mere mortals who are not worth going to the grave for. (refrain:) I don’t need love. For what good will love do me. Diamonds never lie to me. For when love’s gone, they’ll linger on.” Er… hello?
Meanwhile…. on my FIRST day off in Tokyo (I worked seven nights straight, but now have Sundays free), my new girlfriend Inaia (another singer who lives upstairs) showed me around Tokyo. Of course I can’t remember how to get to any of these places without someone holding my hand and leading me there, and I can’t remember the names (so I couldn’t even ask the way) but she took me to an amazing park called Yoyogi, the entrance to which was crowded with high schoolers dressed as Bo Peep meets Goth, and where I saw my first rabbit on a leash. But the sight to see is the dancing Elvises.
Brylcreemed, slicked back hair, black leather jackets, white tee shirts (or bare chested — phoar!!), faded jeans, and shoes so old and tattered they are wrapped in duct tape, to show that they have been dancing a long time. Kind of like the Dancing Princesses in Hans Christian Anderson. Apparently the duct tape is a mark of pride. The dancing is … well, it’s kind of like the twist meets cowboy dancing with the odd bit of hip hop chucked in. It gave me a squeezy feeling in my heart and I couldn’t decide if it was bad or baaaaaaad. In the end I decided it was baaaaaaaaaaad (i.e., good), because they are very serious about it and it feels so innocent (and they are all very handsome and some are bare-chested — phoar!!). They just want to be looked at — for free! In fact, even the (few) homeless people here don’t panhandle.
Elvis impersonators aside, Japanese people dress so stylishly. Everything they wear looks like couture (mind you, I am living in a very posh part) — i.e., as if there is only ONE of these items in the entire whole world (except for school girls, who all wear plaid miniskirts, white shirts and ties). At the traffic lights everyone obediently stands ON THE SIDEWALK (gasp!) until the green light comes on. I started out impatiently stand in the middle of the road New York style, until I realised that (gasp!) traffic didn’t EXPECT to find people standing in the middle of the road New York style at Tokyo traffic lights.
As for WALKING on the sidewalk. Maybe because Japanese people don’t need to be on red alert for street crime or something (I can’t tell you how many enormously fat wallets I see poking out of men’s back pockets), they appear to have no sense of space and one person can mysteriously take up the entire sidewalk, going at snail’s pace, probably emailing on their cell phone at the same time. It’s kind of tortoise meets hare (me being the hare).
Otherwise, Tokyo is the perfect city with plenty of affordable shampoo. And it is safe. I don’t lock my door when I am home. We leave the front door wide open all the time. And I walk home alone from work at 12.30 am and sometimes at 4 am (if I have gone out with Inaia after work) and feel totally safe. There is something wonderful and liberating — especially as a woman — about looking at a dark alley at 4 am, and not thinking twice about taking the short cut that way home. Okay, you think TWICE. But only because you’ve been living in New York a bit too long.
I live in, Azabu Juban, which is UBER cool. And so quiet, even though a 20 minute walk only from midtown. There is very little traffic — aside from bicycles — which makes it super quiet, with just the odd mother with child on child seat, or granny holding umbrella swishing by. The swishing sound would be due to the rainy season, by the way. Every damn day!! And it is so HOT. People warned me, I did not listen! I washed my clothes the other day and it took them THREE FULL DAYS to dry because the air is so humid. Here is a picture of the outside of my house.
Being already a directional dyslexic makes it a bit hard to find my way around. I felt a bit better when my friend Anna told me that, in order to protect the Imperial Palace, the city was actually designed for people to get lost. Not having street names doesn’t help, of course. Everyone uses maps. Just like in Lost in Translation.
But aside from missing you, I could be very happy here. Oh, hang on, except for having to sing to strangers ignoring me most nights, aside from the odd request — like Danny Boy (gaaaargh! and no I didn’t). Then again, a man in lizard skin winkle pickers the other night gave us a $100 tip!
I got back from Seoul, via Tokyo, yesterday. 20 hours of traveling! Blimey! But it was surprisingly easy. I got the best plane seats without an upgrade (though Continental needs to work on the food situation!). And there were no children with their feet in my face — though I did miss the interesting conversations about elephants and robots — so I arrived sans foot-shaped dent on side of head!