The Piano man

Having just came back home from a late night out without kids with wifey and friends, my nerves are tingling. This has got nothing to do with the night-time energy of Zurich Niederdorf – the hub of Zurich nightlife. The culprit is the Piano Man. No – it’s not Billy Joel. I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing him live, and he certainly wouldn’t be playing at that incredibly crowded Zurich bar with people almost falling over him, waitresses buzzing around him carrying trays loaded with trays 6 inches over his head and his entire Piano being used as a table top by women for resting their drinks and swooning over him.

The Piano man in question here is some unknown(at least to me) gentleman probably from Poland or some other east European country. Even after reading his name a couple of time on the front page of the menu of the bar, for the life of me i cannot remember his name now, except that it sounded vaguely polish. And it’s probably for the better. Some things are best left as mysteries. So why is it that at 3 in the morning, having just reached home – I am not in bed and all i can do is write about the evening?

It’s because I can’t get the songs out of my head. I can almost taste the liquid air of that nightclub, the made heavier by the fact that i was only 2 feet away from the Piano being pounded by his fingers. And that i could read the titles and the lyrics of the songs in his notebook which has been thumbed a million times. And it certainly wasn’t for his musical virtuosity – he had the knack of murdering many songs, as he did with ‘The Piano man’. There were many passages where he should have sung Bass, but instead he sang Soprano. Many a times his tune was out of whack with the original. And top it up with the fact that i cannot really bear to hear more than half an Elton John song in a year – and he sang three of them today evening. Apollo, pls forgive me and him.

But the reason my mind is still tingling is the sheer visceral impact, energy, enthusiasm, enjoyment, vibe that the performance contained. It is another glowing tribute to the power of music, especially when you can have the pleasure of it being played live in front of you. The impact feels so much pronounced to me as at any point in time there is a song going on in my head. My first instinct when i get home it to put on some music on the divine Cadence Amayas and the Audio Analogue Puccini, much to the chagrin of my lovely wife at times.

A song being played back from a shiny disc or the grooves of a vinyl record, can never come close to recreating the magic that live music is. No matter how good or how close it sounds to the real thing thanks to good Hi-Fi gear, recorded music can never hold a candle to witnessing it being produced live. Even as I write this, Dylan is playing in the background, belting out ‘Angelina’. His anguished and soaring voice is palpably placed dead center of the soundstage, right between the two speakers, slightly recessed behind the Piano. I can almost ‘see’ the hammers on the piano, hitting the strings and producing the plaintive melody. Thanks to the incredibly fast electrostatic panels, I can ‘sense’ his movement, as he probably shifts his position in front of the microphone, pouring his heart out into the song. I can ‘feel’ his mood as he shifts gears and emotions throughout the song. The picture that he is painting with his words, is coming together very close to as he intends it to be – part Rimbaud poem, part Van Gogh painting and part Kurosawa movie. Having heard him live, his voice is an incredibly close rendition of how he sounds  in real life – shifting from indifference to total immersion in a hearbeat. It is perfect, almost.

As good as it gets, there is something missing. As I wait for the magic to happen, it just doesn’t kick in. All I can do is compare it to the sometimes imperfect renditions belted out in flesh and blood, just an hour back. There is a an invisible veil somewhere. It wasn’t there an hour back. Music is better off without that veil. If you like music, I strongly recommend the following. Firstly, play or learn to play a musical instrument (though I sadly can’t, I will endeavor to it). Secondly, buy the best possible music playback gear you can afford ( … and please don’t get fooled by thinking the Bose is all there is to Hi-Fi). Lastly and most importantly, get out and go to a live concert. Just go, don’t think too much or over-analyze the artist. If you like a musical genre, and there is a relevant live musical event happening close to where you are …. just go. Let lightning strike.

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An ode to the exclamation mark ‘!’

The poor old exclamation mark is probably the most misused and exploited of all the punctuation marks that the English language has bestowed upon us. Just the sheer form that it comes in lends itself to the ruthless exploitation it is subjected to.  How can one resist that temptation to end a sentence that will otherwise go unnoticed, by this little thingy which is the closest relative in the English language to a ‘jack in the box’ – a line jumping out a hole. It is bound to attract attention. It screams – look at me, love me or hate me but you can’t ignore me.

In spite if it being so ubiquitous in nature, what attracted my attention to our very own J.I.B (Jack In the Box – as i will choose to refer to our little friend, the exclamation mark, in this piece) was a word in a book i recently started reading. This book ‘About a boy‘ from Nick Hornby who is also the author of the quirky ‘High Fidelity‘, contains a word which epitomizes the effect of the exclamation mark. The word is  – ‘S.P.A.T !’ …. see the effect of our friend , the J.I.B. It instantaneously transforms the otherwise meaningless word to the equivalent of a 60 meter electronic flashing billboard screaming at you on a desert highway. All for a fraction of its cost, trouble and carbon footprint. This word in the book is an acronym for a Single parents association or some such banal meeting that the protagonist of the book is going to. Why was the ‘!’ meaninglessly appended to the end of the acronym is anyone’s guess. But it ensures tremendous recall value, while no-so-subtly accentuating the frivolity of the meeting’s purpose.

One other famous misuse that springs to mind immediately is –  ‘WHAM!’ the now defunct pop group from the 80’s whose success was completely down to the successful inclusion of ‘!’ in their name. Now that WHAM! is no more, look where the lack of an exclamation mark in George Michael’s name has led him to. He is now reduced to drawing audiences to his concerts with a misleading promise of  an orchestral performance and then proceeds to torture them with his yodeling. He doesn’t let go of them till they are sing out in unison – “Wake me up, before you go-go! … “

In literature, the addition of our friend the J.I.B, at the end of the one-line review blurbs usually found on the back covers of the books, has tremendous commercial value and is responsible for the sustaining of the lavish lifestyles of many authors. More the number of sentences that end with the !’, the more subliminal messages that are passed on to the casual reader – This is book is of profound importance and impact. Miss the chance to read this book at your own peril…etc…etc. How else can one explain the success of millions of self-help books that are sold the world over, whose back and front pages are splattered with the ‘!’.

Stephen Hawking (by no means a self help book author) was told by his publishers – any equation that he includes in his seminal work – ‘A brief history of time’ , will cut the sales by half. What his publishers did not tell him was that inclusion of a ‘!’ in the title or on the back page will more than cover up for the loss of sales because of that one damn equation. Maybe his publishers should have consulted ‘WHAM!’

In politics as well, it has served great value over the years. George Bush & Silvio Berloscuni are two prime examples of leaders whose election to office was lubricated by the generous use of ‘!’ in their campaigns, speeches and actions.


We bow to your power – the great J.I.B, the great uplifter of the mundane and the harbinger of promised excitement. We vow to continue to unabashedly abuse your power. Till such time that the Oxford dictionary bans your usage and Microsoft word’s spell check starts to draw squiggly red lines under you – your followers will continue to grow and prosper. Amen!

So Dylan is 70 today, what’s the big fuss then?

Enough has been written about Dylan over the past years, and even more in the last few weeks and months about the fact that he turned 70 today. Intellingent life, i guess was the the first one off the block with their reportage on Dylan at 70. And I may be the last! Feels nice to close the loop and momentarily exist in the same stratosphere with one of the few truly refined and intelligent journals today. But this piece is about him, not them – so let’s move on.

Anyone interested in music, has to have had a brush with his music at some point in time. And since Dylan’s music is such a polarising object, it can only inspire emotions of the two extremes in people – either you love it or hate it, there is no middle ground. Even mentioning this brings me goose pimples! And it seems appropriate to call his music an ‘object’. His music is so physical in its manifestation, that one can see it in front of you and has perhaps taken different forms over the years. From the rough un-cut diamond in the early sixties, to a sharp razor-edged knife with a encrusted rubies in the mid sixties. It then morphed from an electric saw in the early seventies to a faceless mouldy piece of stale cheese in early eighties. While it may have been in the danger of being thrown into rubbish, it turned into a nicely aged bordeaux during late nineties & early 2000s. And some people are complaining that now the bottle has been left uncorked for too long.

So maybe that’s what the fuss is about? Not the fact that he is 70, and still rambles on that jolly bandwagon of ‘The never ending tour’. That he is not to everyone’s taste. But then, he never was supposed or wanted it to be that way. Or is the fuss about that each time, a new image (much like the one’s I described) is created and labelled on to him, he puts on his leopard skin pillbox hat, takes the tunnel that the jack of hearts dug, and emerges in a place that no one except him could have thought of. He has been doing this for 50 years, and probably sees no reason as to why he should not continue to do so, till his visibly frail frame and his croaky voice allows him to.

I can vividly recall the first memories when the Dylan bug bit. It was in 1996, sitting on a rocky beach in Pondicherry (southern India), gazing into the ocean while the Sony walkman earphones belted out the (almost) violent Hurricane from his album Desire.  This, the first Dylan album that i had bought, is not the most typical initiation as most people would argue. As the last notes of Isis faded into the background, drowned by the sea waves and noises around me, I had sold my soul to him.

After owning everything that he had ever sung (or recited in many cases), the first ‘live’ Dylan experience was also an atypical one, 2004 in a town called Stra (near Venice in northern Italy). The concert stage was set in the massive lawns of a beautiful Italian mansion. Having driven from Budapest to Stra to listen to him, me and wife (carrying our then 9 month old son in a child seat to the concert – we were crazy !) had these visions of him coming on to the stage, greeting the crowd and speaking to us. Then picking up his guitar and harmonica and belt out a beautiful rendition of Desolation row. But the expectation were shattered by a wall of sound that emerged from a stage where 6-7 people banged into their instruments. “Which song is this and where the @#§* is Dylan” we asked ourselves. The violence of the music and the way he twisted the song To be alone with you, still rankles in my mind. To find him tucked away in the shadows, with a scruffy beard, his side to the audience, banging away on a keyboard and croaking inaudibly into a mike could not have been a greater contrast to the much publicised image of a clean shaven Dylan wooing the audience with his words, guitar & harmonica, which was stuck in my head. 5 more concerts later with musical renditions of his songs ranging from pristine revelations to having molten lead poured into my ears, my soul is still sold to him.

So is the fuss all about the fact that people who are more fortunate than me to see him in his so-called heydays of 60s, are still yearning for that image. They haven’t moved on from that place, while he has. Maybe the fuss will always remain and hopefully it does. His music in not mass produced McDonald burgers that will always come out the same way. It is a hand crafted sculpture. When reproduced on different days, in different setting and moods, it will be variations of the original. And like the pied piper, there will always be a beeline behind him, following his tunes hypnotically.

So how did I celebrate his birthday? In the most atypical way. By not listening to his music! Strange as it may sound, by having his favorite songs playing in my head, rather than via the beautiful Cadence Amayas, gave them a more Dylanesque touch. By imagining how they might sound if he were to sing it today, rather than hearing the version from 1978, made them more real and personal. Even though I own all the 4 recorded versions of Mississippi, the fifth one, which is my own and playing in my head right now, seems the most appropriate one to play today. And maybe that’s what the fuss is all about.

Stuff That futurE shouLd brinG (STELG) #3 : A ghost writer

Having dipped my feet into the cold water of blogging a few months back, I have gone through the classic cycle of :

  • enthusiasm (wow – I am writer now! Though am i the only one who ready my posts inspite of slowly growing list of followers?)
  • delight (of converting my thoughts into a digital form that are sent out into the vortex of the world-wide web to see if someone else out there with the same thoughts)
  • pat yourself on your back (When you get a comment or a ‘like’. But since it takes all sort of people to make the world, occasionally I also get brickbats on some of the ideas and posts the i publish. One of my last posts about where i directed some light-hearted pun towards some cricket players was one of them)
  • horror (what the heck did i just publish?)
  • anxiety (What to write about next – this ranges between bursting with ideas at a given point in time to staring at blank glowing rectangular screen waiting for inspiration to hit)

So a few days back, a thought struck me – Wouldn’t it be nice if someone or something could prod or help you to writing your blog posts? It sure wouldn’t be bad, i must say.  Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to walk away from the arduous task of having to think up ideas, structure my thoughts and then play with the beautiful medium that is (elastic) words to express them. I wouldn’t mind a helpful prop-up once in a while. Afterall, i juggle many balls in the air all the time – work, family, cricket(watching and coaching), music, keeping fit, reading. I just added another one to it recently – blogging. And since trying to find a better way of doing things is ingrained into my DNA, I want to make sure that each of them works pristinely (though my wife perhaps will have a different opinion about my work-life balance)

So i sincerely hope that a STELG comes along and :

  1. Reads my mind and provides me with a shortlisted set of ideas that i could write about
  2. Helps my get those words out faster – this task of clackety tapping a keyboard while simultaneously thinking, structuring, trying to keep a straight back while sitting, sipping my tea and adjusting the level of music on my wonderful Cadence Amayas, can almost qualify me to a Guinness book of world record entry
  3. Does away automatically with all those squiggly lines under the mis-spelt words. (I would love to outsource this kind of mind numbing typo correcting tasks – like i can do at work by sending it to some helpful souls sitting in another country :-)
  4. Proof read my post and offer grammatical suggestions and even automatically correct the simple ones (Please do not suggest that horrible approach to grammar correction that microsoft word takes)
  5. Recycle stuff, parts, ideas, tags etc from my old posts – Many a times thoughts are expressed around a similar set of topics probably visited in an earlier post. It is a tedious task to type up the same tags, heading, links etc repeatedly.

So WordPress, Blogger or any of you blog providers out there – are you listening? Hopefully some of you will have these soon and your stock would move up in my eyes.

An impression of a blogger, wondering whether to set forth or not. Image via Wikipedia

There are strange rivers

It is truly one of life’s great mysteries how things pop out of the blue and connect with each other. Call it serendipity, randomness, luck, fortune .. whatever, but there are forces that are continuously at work, unknown to you. Joan Baez, the great folk singer of 60’s, put it so well in her song ‘Strange rivers’

“Have You Ever Turned the Corner and wondered Why You Did?
You Haven’t Been That Way Since You Were Just a Kid

Oh, There Are Strange Rivers, Rivers That We Cannot See
There Are Strange Rivers Who Know Our Destiny”

I am sitting here in Switzerland tapping away. 5 yrs ago, it started with one call from a friend on an autumn evening in Budapest – while we were getting ready to move back to India after a brief stint of 1.5 yrs –  mentioning an opening here, another follow-up call, and bang one lands up in Switzerland!

I just finished the mercurial Kafka on the shore by Murakami, and it

Kafka on the shore Haruki Murakami. Image courtesy Amazon.com

captures the essence of how things/people are connected by invisible strings. The central character in that book is a Mr Nakata, a shy old man, short statured, short cropped graying hair, always wears a gray coat and carries a black umbrella in his hand. He avoids talking to people as he finds it too complicated, cannot read and is always lost in his own world. A few days back coming back home on the train at around 9 in the evening, i see this man standing in the middle of the almost empty train compartment and i could have sworn he is Mr Nakata who has materialized out that book. As i got up from my seat and started towards the door, you could see the same  spaced out feeling on his face that Murakami describes, clutching his black umbrella tightly and wrapping his gray overcoat even more snugly around him, he starts to move back, his eyes scanning the scene around him, moving into a corner where he can be alone. He quickly crossed over into the other compartment, but still all the time watching me and the other people with a questioning, shy look on his face through the mirrored partition. Was he really the Mr Nakata (Or the Swiss version of him?), one will never know.

Today afternoon, while stacking that book back on the bookshelf, I remembered that i have a book written by the original Franz Kafka somewhere, but had no recollection of when or where i had bought it. A quick search and the book is unearthed. As i open the first page, a handwritten note stares back at me. It was a gift from 13 yrs back by a friend. Whom I have not been in touch with ever since we parted ways back in Chennai India, where we had spent a fantastic 3 months, getting to terms with a (then) strange city that seemed to fight back resolutely for the first couple of weeks to let us in. It started from the first day where we were mobbed by the taxi driver, the house where we were staying in was almost broken into, struggling to find a decent place to eat where we could get something recognizable and edible …. the list is endless. But suddenly one day it all snapped in together, perhaps thanks to that steward at the restaurant next door, whom we used to tip generously everyday as he served us copious amounts of our favorite curries. The city seemed to have dropped it’s guard, welcomed us in and we got to know it  like the back of our hands. So this friend – we recently got in touch again this year, thanks to a mis-spelt Google search that led me to his blog. And there it was today afternoon again, his writing starting back to me on the inner cover from a book that I haven’t touched in nearly 13 yrs.

Maybe there’s a message in here somewhere that I cannot decipher yet. The inimitable Joan did put it correctly … there are strange rivers.