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Two Nights With U2 In Berlin, 9-24 & 9-25-15

Everything you know is wrong, auf deutsch #u2ietour #u2berlin

Wanting to see U2 in an arena in Europe managed to connect nicely with wanting to spend time in Berlin, so we traveled to see two of the four shows at the Mercedes-Benz Arena at the end of September. The queue outside was very international, with Poles, Finns and Russians (and their vodka bottles) heavily dominating the line.

The first night’s queue was a hot mess, with security deciding to hand out wristbands by standing outside the queue pen and yelling at people in German that they needed to come have their tickets scanned. Despite our tickets designating us for the South Side, we were placed North Side. The Red Zone got let in ahead of general GA; we arrived around 4pm so weren’t expecting much but happily grabbed our favored spots with the Red Zone to our back.

Ticket time said 7:30, which I thought would be 8:10-8:15, but it wasn’t until 8:35 that we heard “People Have the Power” and a newly-coiffed Bono strutted down the catwalk to the I stage. (Newly-coiffed to me, but the pompadour was definitely tighter and higher than it was in NYC.) I expected a lot from a Berlin audience, and they were definitely with the band from the first note, even if the crowd sat down for the first part of the show.

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Bono was definitely operating on high gear for the initial part of the show. I’ve been listening to the shows via Mixlr each night, so it’s tough for me to call out any differences in approach, energy or performance; but they’ve definitely reached that part of the tour where they are just cruising, and I mean that in a good way. It’s a high-powered energy vehicle that they can tweak one way or the other depending on the night.

I really wanted to head back to the E stage when the time came, but then realized that I didn’t want to bolt at the end of “Until The End of The World” because if there was ever a place where I wanted to soak that song in, it would be the first time hearing it in Berlin, and also because I wanted to be able to take in the audience’s reaction to the Berlin Wall imagery coming down at intermission.

There was a huge swell of energy and emotion at the start of UTEOTW; I am sure that some of that came from me, but I would stand and assert that at least part of it was universal. It is a song that generally picks up the whole audience, and tonight was no different. Berliners know where that song came from. And then, when the screen switched to the wall and the banners came down, there was a gentle but definite gasp of recognition—you could feel the energy in the room heighten—and then of course everyone took out their phones. That was when we scurried to the back of the floor. The slogans were in German; there was also a live subtitle scroll at the bottom of the large screen tonight when Bono was talking between songs. (I do not envy that person their job.)

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In Berlin, the back quarter of the E stage was cordoned off. But there was plenty of room at the very back along the dividing barrier, and we could see just fine. There was a group of very drunk Germans sending a woman in their party to dispose of their empty beer cups and acquire more beer, and luckily they decided they were more interested in drinking more than watching the show at the end of “Invisible” (which I still actively dislike for the exact same ways I did in July at MSG) when Bono announced, “Please welcome to the E stage…” at the end of “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and out of the screen came Larry, Adam and Edge.

Bono was breathing heavy into the mic and I’m kind of ashamed I didn’t recognize the synth drone. But as soon as the first car-crash-chords emanated out of Edge’s guitar, the hair on my arms stood straight up and there was a collective OH MY FUCKING GOD as we and the people in front of us (some great South American fans) absolutely exploded. Like, Zoo Station? In BERLIN? On the FIRST NIGHT? It hasn’t been played ALL TOUR? And then the initial rhythm of the intro, the band finding their groove and neatly slotting into it, before those shimmering chords come in from the Edge and carry the song to the first line.

I am levitating. I am praying for time to stand still. I am singing in my best Fly intonation because I don’t know any other way to sing it. “I’m ready to duck / I’m ready to dive, I’m ready to say I’m glad to be alive / I’m ready, ready for the — PUSH,” and if your pelvis didn’t move a little bit like Bono’s vinyl-clad ass used to towards the camera, I will tell you that you are lying.

Bono was feeling it. Larry and Edge were DRIVING it. It was unpredictable and rough and gorgeous and emotional and enormous, huge for the fans who knew that this hadn’t happened yet, for everyone who knew why it was happening now. It was beyond wonderful. When it was done, I was absolutely numb. I did not know how I was going to get through the rest of the night.

This is the one you want to watch:

It wasn’t that I didn’t care about Mysterious Ways, it was that I was still floating somewhere above the lighting rig, not ready to come down yet. So I tried to focus on the mundane. Not having been back there before, I was fascinated by exactly how much work and crew-frantic-scurrying it takes to get the E stage set up, and was glad I didn’t care about watching “Invisible” to pay attention to it happening.

I also understand why people fight for spots back there, even those who aren’t trying to get a free guitar or dance with Bono; you are that much closer to them all, surrounding them on all sides in what is a very tiny space. We had a great side view of the rhythm section, which was particularly enjoyable as Bono repeatedly fucked up the intro to “Elevation.” Repeatedly. As in, more than once. And it’s amazing how many people sprung to his vivid defense every time I brought this up the next day: you don’t understandit’s hard to hearhis ear monitorsif you don’t get the rhythm of the song exactly right. GUYS. It’s ELEVATION, not “Salome,” and the looks on Larry and Adam’s faces while this was going on was all I needed to see to know that I was right, and was alone well worth the price of admission.

My favorite line from Mr. B: “This is very exciting— for OTHER people.”

Larry and Adam vacate the stage. Edge points at the stage and waves his hands—presto-chango!—and the piano comes out of the stage. “Every Breaking Wave” and “October” have the same problem that they do everywhere else on the planet, in that the quiet nature of the performance is the universal signal for EVERYONE TALK LOUDLY NOW. But at least I’m hearing their chatter in other languages, which is slightly less distracting, and have the bonus of being able to observe Edge’s facial expressions while he’s playing the piano.

We head back to the center of the floor in time to the opening riffs of “Bullet the Blue Sky.” It was a relief to be on a less-crowded floor after Madison Square Garden. The venue marked off aisles along the edges of the floor that they policed and kept clear, which made it possible to migrate from front to back without being a total dick to the people around you. Bono has an EU-flag megaphone to match his stars and stripes one; I wonder where one acquires these.

The crowd got to their feet at the end of Zooropa, cheering the “#refugees welcome” message on the screen, and stayed there as soon as they recognized the chords of “Streets”. There were two German bro-dudes standing behind us with their large beers, uncharacteristically close for two German dudes. That lasted exactly one second after the lights came on for “Streets,” and it wasn’t just us; the older serious bearded dudes to my left were jumping up and down as much as we were. It was amazing, amazing energy.

The audience loved ‘Pride” more than I have seen a lot of audience love “Pride,” and it was heart-swelling and beautiful. I ran out during WOWY to hit the bathroom and get water (we knocked over the cup of water–why venues won’t even give you a lid and a straw is just ridiculous –we had been saving for the show about one song before People Have The Power and it was incredibly hot in there), and it was amazing that the hallways and food stands and internal lobby of the venue were a ghost town. No one was standing out there chatting; at the Garden there is always someone outside talking or bored or waiting or doing something that’s not watching the concert.

We were exhausted by the end, “City of Blinding Lights” and “Beautiful Day” and, to be honest, too many political issues jammed into the end of a show that was floating on air. Not because I have a problem with Political Bono, but because it was literally too much and killing the vibe. He can’t talk about the refugees (which got the crowd on its feet) and AIDS and the Global Whateveritwas 2030 (see, I pay attention to stuff and I couldn’t even get it). And I wish he would sing “One,” or at least more of it than he does; I still love that song, and the end, when the band come in and do play, when Larry plays this majestic fill and Edge works the counter harmonies on the guitar, is stunning. I just want that for the whole song.

We were on the edge of the floor and out the door like a couple of pros as Larry came out from behind the drum kit, and walked across an amazing bridge with castle turrets, huge moon above us, on our way to get dinner. (I would find out later that this was Oberbaumbrücke, which used to be a border checkpoint between East and West Berlin.)

We just saw U2 in Berlin. They played “Zoo Station.” I go to sleep on a happy little cloud.

Our line position was significantly improved night two. We got there half an hour earlier because that’s how the day fell out, and there were less people in the queue. This time, they scanned the tickets and handed out wristbands before we were sorted into the queue pens, and we were sorted by side.

Not long after we sat down, Glenn leaned over and whispered into my ear: “Macphisto has arrived.”

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Sure enough, at the front of the queue, Mr. Macphisto was there, in full drag. It would be easy to laugh (and we did laugh), but on the other hand, that getup took a lot of planning, and after “Zoo Station” the previous night, I was happy for any additional reminders to inspire the band.

Once inside, we grabbed two spots on the rail at the catwalk, right at Larry Mullen Jr. position for “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and right at Lord of the Flies. It was pretty much the only place in the venue we hadn’t watched the show from at this point, so it felt like a good spot for our last I&E show for 2015.

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I was pleased to observe that Macphisto had managed to get himself onto the South Side of the E Stage, where he was busy touching up his makeup. (I will also note that I thought it was hilarious that his horns were AC/DC horns, which he wore backwards so the logo faced the back.)

This show had the absolute best audience energy of the 7 shows we saw on this tour, coming very close to topping that last night at the Garden (and in some places, they absolutely did). It was a Friday night in Berlin, and people were ready to party. It was also the 39th anniversary of the day that the band met in Larry’s kitchen and decided to start a band, a fact noted by Bono right before “Electric Co.”

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I didn’t have central stage or a screen, but I did get to watch the staging of my favorite parts of the show, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” into “Raised By Wolves” into “Until The End of the World.” There is so much that goes on during RBW that you absolutely do not see unless you are right there on the catwalk, and I remain astonished that they pull this off every night. I didn’t get hit by a book (or catch one as it went into the crowd), but I was glad to finally be able to watch this particular piece of theater happen right in front of me.

The catwalk spot would prove to be great for the E stage, with fantastic views of everyone, and Bono out under the mirror balls before “Mysterious Ways” started. And then, in the middle of the song, you see him gesture to a fan, and to my delight, there is Macphisto, his gold lame suit glittering in the spotlight, stalking Bono around the stage. Bono loved it. The rest of the band loved it. Mr. Macphisto himself was having the time of his life (as he should be), as Bono sent him down the catwalk, where he posed and preened and strutted, before posing one last time as the lighting guys sent a bright red spot on him, up at the end of the catwalk, before he left the stage. “I’d like to thank Mr. Macphisto,” Bono said, “Haven’t seem him in–quite a while.”

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I’m not sure Bono meant for him to disappear, and it’s not like his presence would have changed the set from “Desire” and “Angel of Harlem” into “Ultraviolet” (BUT IT SHOULD HAVE). At least we didn’t get any amateur guitar players, despite massive signs at the E stage again (they were there the first night too, and that’s the band’s fault at this point) and that is a good thing because this crowd sang the hell out of “Desire.” I literally have never heard a crowd sing that song so hard, and so loud. Bono took one of his in-ear monitors out so he could hear it better. It was one of those times where a crowd sing-a-long didn’t take the guts out of a song and turn it into some kind of campfire melody (which is one of my main complaints about allowing “One” to be just that).

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The end of the show was a bullet train, the band on 11, the audience right there alongside them. And we kept thinking, okay, whatever special Friday night Berlin surprise the band has planned, we didn’t get it on the E stage, we’ll get it on the I stage — remember, Bruce showed up there, and not on the E stage, is what we kept telling ourselves. And no doubt that the back end of the show was performed with strength and emotion and energy, but it was missing that special something that the previous night had — plus, got derailed by what felt like a lengthy explanation about how Bono was going to New York on the weekend to hold the politicians accountable.

Tonight it was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” that closed down the night, with the band walking down the runway, Bono singing the chorus to “People Have The Power” as he headed for the stairs. Outside, the moon was still full, and the energy high as we headed out across the castle bridge one last time.

The next day, we’d drive a Trabant around Berlin while listening to “One,” and blatantly trying to model Anton Corbijn photos.

[Photoset is here]

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Visiting Memphis: Travel Report

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I travelled to Memphis a few weeks ago. It was amazing, and exceeded every expectation I had. I do not know how and why it took me so long to get here; over the years I have been led to believe that there wasn’t much to do or that it wasn’t worth my time. All I can say now is that I am so incredibly sad I had not been there before.

Memphis is a town that knows what side of its tourist bread is buttered on; the airport’s logo is a music note, and the background music in the terminal is Elvis. Rental cars were cheap, and you need a car for Memphis. (Okay, it depends what you are coming to Memphis to do. If all you want to do is get drunk on Beale Street, then you should forgo the car, and the exorbitant downtown hotel garage parking prices, and stay downtown. If you are there to see the sights, you will need a car, no matter how appealing the various shuttle services might be.)

Our first stop was Payne’s BBQ, which is a 10 minute drive from the airport. There is no shortage of delicious foodstuffs on your way to downtown — or anywhere, really — from the airport, and thus no reason you shouldn’t stop and fortify yourself. Having an opinion about barbecue in Memphis is like having an opinion about coffee in Seattle; the front desk clerk at our hotel had no qualms at sniffing at our revelation that we’d been to Payne’s, stating that he was a Central BBQ man himself. You don’t have to choose sides, so try them all. Payne’s is an old gas station; the line was short, and the pulled pork served with a surprisingly delicious and mustardy cole slaw.

Thing of beauty. #bbq #memphis

Despite my dreams of staying at the Peabody, we opted for the cheap and cheerful Holiday Inn Express near the medical center, because we knew we would be spending very little time in the actual hotel room. It was centrally located, had free parking, and was reasonably priced for Memorial Day weekend. The front desk handed over all sorts of coupons for Graceland and Stax; unfortunately the Graceland coupons were not valid on, you guessed it, Memorial Day weekend, but we appreciated the gesture.

ARDENT STUDIOS

Our first destination was Ardent Studios, where a friend had kindly arranged for us to meet up with Jody Stephens for what I imagined would be a quick walk through the studio. Jody graciously spent over an hour and a half taking us around the place and into the various studios. It is a gorgeous building, with a courtyard and fountain and decks and patios and art everywhere. He regrettably had no Replacements stories (but did show us a great photograph I’d never seen from the album release party, with the band wearing plaid hats and looking suitably ragged) but did talk about the Afghan Whigs (no surprise, he loved them) and Big Star and Lynyrd Skynryd and ZZ Top and a long list of others who worked in the building. I love being in places where creative energy has been present over a period of time and am always thrilled to walk into a room where magic has happened. The lobby is more or less open to the public and you can see the wall o’gold records recorded there, as well as a small tribute to the late John Fry (including his bronze tennis shoes), and the neon Big Star logo just behind the reception desk. H/T to Glenn for managing his Memphis playlist (more on this later) so we pulled into the parking lot listening to “Alex Chilton”.

Waiting room. #nevertravelfar #memphisHallowed ground. #memphis

I posted about this on Tumblr, but while researching things for the trip, I found a great Jim Dickinson quote about the ‘Mats in Memphis:

You’ve got about eight blocks from Ardent to the former Holiday Inn on Union at McLean.
Yeah, and they could get in trouble in those eight blocks, believe me! They could score dope before they were out of the parking lot. They were amazing. You know that line in “Can’t Hardly Wait”: “Lights that flash in the evening/through a hole in the drapes”? That’s about that hotel.

Of course, that meant that I had to find it (it’s empty now):

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SUN STUDIOS

After grabbing a coffee to calm down after starting our Memphis sojourn with a bang, we headed for Sun Studios. The Sun tour is every hour on the half hour, and even Mystery Train aside, I had never heard great things about it — but if you want to get into the room you have to take the tour. Our tour was mobbed, which was to be expected on a holiday weekend; our solution to that is to make sure that we’re either the first people or the last people. Even if you don’t care about the tour or the studio, stopping at the gift shop will give you enough of the feel of things, with photos and memorabilia on the wall, and every possible type of merchandise with the Sun label logo. (And, free parking in back, which will never not be a delightful thing for a New Yorker.)

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The actual tour was surprisingly informative, mostly due to the tour guide’s level of energy and enthusiasm, and the fact that we did not need to silently trainspot any errors or misstatements. There is a small museum upstairs now, including a replica of the WHBQ studio from the old Hotel Chisca (which is currently being turned into condos after being abandonded for decades). I very much appreciated that they deliberately encourage you to take as many photos in the actual studio as you like, with what they call the “Elvis microphone” placed in the exact spot that it would have been back in the day. (I preferred the shots at what we called the “Larry Mullen Jr. drum kit.”) There are musical instruments to pose with (although they ask you to please not play them) and again, waiting everyone out means that you can get a couple of minutes in the room to yourself. I didn’t care about the microphone either, but here I am next to the Million Dollar Quartet.

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The next stop was Gus’ Fried Chicken, where I drank about a gallon of sweet tea. It hadn’t been on our original list of places, because we had done the chicken thing in Nashville this past fall, but we were encouraged by a Memphian to not omit it and I’m glad we didn’t. Then it was time for a well-earned nap, before heading out for a Chris Bell tribute at the Hi-Tone Cafe. When the doorman looked at my license, he said, “You came all the way from New York for this?” “No, we just happened to pick this weekend to visit Memphis.” There were people from Ohio and Chicago and although I am usually dubious about tributes, this one had several of the same folks involved with the various Big Star tributes, as well as Jody Stephens playing drums for the first five songs. The Bell family was in attendance, and Chris’ sister gave a lovely speech thanking all of us for our continued interest in Chris’ work. I started to fade around 10:30 (after a prolonged acoustic interlude) and we had an early start planned for the next day, so we headed back to the hotel.

GRACELAND

Saturday was up at 7 to leave at 8 to be at Graceland as early as possible, and the sky was grey and cloudy as we turned onto Elvis Presley Blvd. and I put on “Johnny Bye-Bye.” It is faded and not as grand or as busy as you would imagine (or at least as I would imagine). I had hoped that getting there so early would get us through the house before the hordes descended, but early access is reserved for those spending $77 as part of the VIP tour, and we were eight groups back despite being the first people on the line to buy tickets. This gave us time to browse the multiple gift shops and fully immerse ourselves into the Elvis Industrial Complex. We paid $40 for our tour; you can pay up to $77, for the full VIP, front-of-the-line, see-the-airplanes visit. An important thing to note is that only the VIP tours allow you to go through the house more than once; I still would not have paid more than I did but if you think you might want to do that, you should keep that in mind.

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I am not an Elvis fan, but I am not a non-fan; however, I was approaching my Graceland visit as a music historian and cultural observer. That said, I was pretty excited to be here. That got choked out of me at some point in the queue when it was close to 10am and we had not yet gotten on the shuttle bus to go over to the mansion, and then once we were there, were herded into various lines wearing our headphones and carrying our iPads while we waited for other groups to clear the first rooms in the house.

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There are no more guided tours; you get an iPad (with narration by John Stamos, for reasons that escape me) and headphones and while this should in theory move things along, what you get is an army of zombies shuffling along in a line, despite the staff saying THERE IS NO LINE, PLEASE MOVE TO FILL ANY SPACE YOU SEE. I kept one side off so I could talk to the boyfriend, so the entire encounter wasn’t completely devoid of any human contact, but I didn’t learn anything from the commentary, and found it mostly annoying. The iPad doesn’t take into account that people are carrying a purse or a bag and a camera or a phone and there’s a lot of awkward juggling going on; the iPad has a rubber case and a shoulder harness, but it’s a lot of dead weight.

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The iPad ‘features” there is ‘extra multimedia content’ but you don’t get the time or space to really see it while shuffling from room to room. Along with John Stamos, there is commentary from Lisa Marie and Priscilla; the former was vaguely interesting while the latter was faux-reverential in a way that turned me off, and I don’t have a horse in this race.

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My immediate impression was that the house, while ostentatious in all the ways you’d expect, was more humanely-scaled than you’d expect a mansion to be. You get to see 8 rooms in the main house, including the pool room, the TV room with its trio of screens, and the Jungle room, before being shuttled out to an office and former storage area. Here is where you can start to make some time and get ahead of the blindly shuffling masses, and let the iPad catch up to where you are, which was a common complaint I heard from other people on the tour

The next stop is the trophy room, which is a collection of memorabilia and awards, and is another place you can hopscotch ahead of people who need to see and photograph every item in every exhibit and case and vitrine. The last building is the racquetball court, and I was already rolling my eyes and going, “I literally do not need to see this, let’s just hit the meditation garden and GTFO,” but after paying $40 (and that’s only $4 up from the basic mansion-only tour) you kind of start to feel obligated to see every last goddamn thing in the place, and they don’t make it easy for you to shortcut the thing at all. The boyfriend was enamored by the old-fashioned 70s “EP” initials on the wall of the lounge area of the racquetball court, while the actual court itself is filled with post-death awards and achievements and a couple of costumes that clearly didn’t fit into the Trophy Room. The narration on the iPad mentions that the piano in the racquetball court was the last place Elvis was before he died, which is probably why it is part of the tour, but by the time John Stamos got to that part of the narration I was ready to bail.

Too much fucking perspective #graceland

A photo posted by Caryn Rose (@caryn_rose) on

Elvis and his family are buried at Graceland because of security reasons; they had been in another cemetery but almost instantly had problems with grave robbers. I have been on the side of anyone needing their communal moment with Elvis the entire tour, and this is the worst place for there to be a line, but there was a long line, and it did not move. There are steps behind the walkway around the graves, and we finally just walked the opposite way behind the line. People were complaining about it but literally all I wanted to do was take a walk and quietly sing a barbershop raga version of “Heartbreak Hotel” and make a joke under my breath about “too much fucking perspective,” before beating a hasty retreat to the shuttle.

Neon ghosts of Elvis #memphis

There was another stop at the “archive,” which we just outright declined. Our ticket level entitled us to the archive and the cars, and we only really cared about the house and the cars, and about getting over to Stax in enough time to properly enjoy it. The archive just houses additional memorabilia, and I’m sure it would have been interesting, but I was pretty much done at this point.

The cars used to be housed under the carport behind Graceland, but are now in their own exhibit (with their own gift shop), and given that it’s only a $4 upcharge, I would encourage you to spend the money — although nothing in the exhibit beat Isaac Hayes’ Cadillac at Stax, but I am getting ahead of myself.

My gift shop haul: a pink cadillac pin, a TCB pin, an Elvis Presley Boulevard bumpersticker, and a postcard of the front of the house, because there was no way for me to get a shot of it given all the queues to get inside. We left, planning to come back at the end of the day in order to get a shot of the legendary gates, which are of course open while the mansion is open.

THE STAX MUSEUM OF AMERICAN SOUL MUSIC

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Lunch was at Central BBQ. You could have barbecue for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Memphis, except then you couldn’t have sausage gravy and biscuits for breakfast. Central has more on the menu than Payne’s did, and was so good that we briefly considered having it for dinner.

Blasting Sam and Dave, we headed for our next destination. My heart started to beat faster when we turned onto McLemore Avenue, and before we knew it, there it was, THAT marquee, with ‘SOULSVILLE, USA’ on the front. My heart was in my throat, and I was covered in goosebumps. I know it is not the original building, but you make a right turn from McLemore onto what is now signed as David Porter Way, and tell me that you don’t started to get all choked up. It is still the same locus of energy, the same parcel of land, it is matching the vision I had in my imagination.

This is holy ground, no mistaking it.

The marquee is there, the front facade is there, there is a replica of Satellite Records, Estelle Axton’s domain, there is the historical marker that for years was the only reminder of what had happened in this location. So much care went into the recreation of this space.

The introductory movie had already started, but we didn’t care, we rushed in and sat down. Not that we needed the history lesson, but just to sit there and soak it in, surrounded by other people who were also fans of this music, including a large family reunion group in matching t-shirts, was wonderful. And literally, Glenn and I never would have met had Sam Moore not performed with Bruce Springsteen 12 years ago, had we not discovered that we each loved this music in the same way, for the same reasons, that we could sing the horn lines in “Wrap It Up,” that our faces lit up at a mention of Otis Redding.

The museum does such a very good job at telling so many stories, the stories of the Black church tradition and gospel, the story of Memphis music, the story of Stax from beginning to end, the stories of the individual musicians, the story of how all of it fit into the history of popular music. There is Steve Cropper’s amp, Wayne Jackson’s trombone, there is my favorite photo of that era, from a Sam and Dave session: Al Jackson, Wayne Jackson, Sam Moore, Dave Prater, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones. We stared at that for a while, before we both had the same thought: Now, *there’s* the Million Dollar…Nontet.

There is a replica of the old original control room, with a note that it and the studio had been recreated from plans and written histories and the collective recollections of everyone who had worked there. From there, you walk into the recreation of Studio A, which was placed on the exact original footprint of where it stood back in the day, with the rest of the museum built around it. When I stepped into the studio, I thought it was all fine, and good, until I stepped into it further and realized that they had recreated the incline of the old movie theater floor, and got goosebumps again. You stand there, and close your eyes, and try to imagine. Everything happened in this room.

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After that, there is still more to see, including a trivia game I beat Glenn at twice, and Isaac Hayes’ 24-carat gold plated Cadillac. By the time we reached the end, we were sad it was over, but so very happy we had finally gotten here. We over-spent in the gift shop, and had to restrain ourselves as it was. (I also had to restrain myself from punching the tourists complaining there were no BB King postcards available in the gift shop.)

Isaac Hayes' Cadillac #stax #memphis

We headed downtown quickly, because I had a date with some ducks. At 4:30, the Peabody was already mobbed, and I was ready to bail, but Glenn insisted that we stay. I found a reasonable perch to watch the spectacle, and in the end, was glad that we stayed. (Don’t ever try to see the ducks at 5pm on a Saturday, would be my advice. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, here is a handy link.)

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Then, we headed off to find somewhere to have a drink overlooking the Mississippi (yes, make your “Heartland” jokes now), and then sat and played cards and had dinner at the Bardog Tavern, waiting for the sun to go down. That’s when we got back in the car and headed back to Graceland, so I could get a shot of the closed gates and one of Glenn “trying” to go over the wall (which is a Springsteen reference), headed back to Stax to get the marquee lit up (which we’d confirmed with the staff before leaving, that it would be), and then back to Sun for the same thing. We probably should have headed for Beale Street, but it had been a long and emotional day, and we were both exhausted.

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SUNDAY

Sunday morning, we got up early. I did my hair, Glenn shaved. I put on a fancy dress, he put on a suit and tie. We had an important destination later in the morning, and we needed to be dressed properly. But first, we headed downtown for breakfast at the Bon Ton Cafe. The wafting smell of urine in the gutter that greeted me getting out of the car made me glad we did not try for Beale Street the previous evening; it’ll give us another reason to come back.

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I had expected some wait at the restaurant, and when there wasn’t one, the end of breakfast meant that we still had time to kill. Glenn suggested that we drive into Mississippi so he could add to his state line sign photo collection (although according to the rules*, we cannot count it as a state we have been in), and when we passed a sign pointing out the exit towards Highway 61, we absolutely could not resist. It was Bob’s birthday, and here we are on Highway 61, singing along (because of course we both have it on our phones), as well as “Like A Rolling Stone”. We found a suitable sign for photo purposes, got Glenn’s photos, and then headed back up to Memphis for our 11:30am engagement at the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church.

Full gospel Tabernacle Church. bishop Al Green. #memphisGoing to Rev. Al's church hat. #memphis

The Full Gospel Tabernacle Church is Al Green’s church, and I have wanted to go there for decades. The thing about going to see the Rev. Al at church is that there is literally no way to know if he will be there; I asked a very well connected friend, and his comment was, “The church doesn’t even know if he will be there.” But we went, hoping against hope. It’s a modern building located in the southern part of town, surrounded by suburban houses. At 11:15am when we arrived, Sunday School was in progress, and the church was full of tourists, 90% of whom were wearing t-shirts and shorts. Literally, I do not know how you can go to someone else’s house of worship and dress like a slob. I will confess that I might have bought a hat for the occasion (no, I seriously did) and I was proud that we had bothered to dress properly. I mostly felt sorry for the dude two rows ahead of us wearing a t-shirt that had a small, but noticeable, Confederate flag on the back of his shirt, because it must be hard to go through life that clueless.

After Sunday School, the choir arrived, the band came out onstage, and the service began. All of this was thoroughly enjoyable even if the Reverend didn’t appear. But then someone began handing out programs, and the program listed several items next to which the name “Rev. A.L. Green” appeared, and the program had today’s date on it. A few minutes later, we saw him walk past a door opening at the back of the pulpit, and I looked down and tried to remove the smile on my face. And then, there he was, sitting in the chair previously reserved for BISHOP AL GREEN, wearing ecclesiastical robes and reading glasses.

The Bishop is in. (And I only took this because he told people it was okay.) #memphis

He preached. He sang. He told stories. He preached some more. He walked through the crowd, reciting the Lord’s Prayer (me: “Hey, I know this one!”) He asked people in the pews where they were from, and there were people from all over the planet, from Australia to Norway to Belgium. He encouraged people to take photographs (which is when I took one very tiny one, still feeling bad about it). We knew that there would be a collection, and I left this up to Glenn to handle since this is not something a Jewish girl from Connecticut knows anything about. At Rev. Al’s church, you have to walk to the front to drop your envelope in the collection plate. This is when the tourists from Norway and Belgium and Australia headed for the door, which was even less classy than showing up wearing shorts.

THE NATIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM

We left around 1:30, and only because we still had a lot to do before we left town the next day. After changing out of church clothes, we headed downtown to get a snack before our next destination. After we parked the car and were walking uphill, I turned to my right, and there was the sign for the Lorraine Motel, and the building itself with the wreath on the balcony, and I just had to stop for a minute, there was a lump in my throat and I had to hold back the tears. It was overwhelming in a way I did not expect.

There was a long, long line at the museum, due to the holiday weekend, and security at the doors, and an unfortunate dearth of ticket sellers. But everyone waited patiently. I can tell you that it was unbelievably well done, and I can tell you that it was devastating; if you go, I would suggest making it the back half of the day, because you will need some time afterwards to process it.

When I was doing my pre-trip reading, the thing I learned that surprised me the most from Robert Gordon’s Stax history “Respect Yourself” was the connection the Lorraine had to Stax. Back in the day, there were very few places in Memphis where black people and white people could meet and socialize, and the Lorraine was one of them. The musicians often stayed there, and worked there together. Steve Cropper and Wilson Pickett wrote “In The Midnight Hour” at the Lorraine; Cropper also wrote “Knock On Wood” with Eddie Floyd there as well, during a summer storm (which is where the “It’s like thunder, lightning” line comes from). This would be the only photograph I took; there was no way I felt good or right taking photographs of anything else.

The Lorraine Motel was one of the only places where block people & white people could hang out. So Stax musicians would hang out here & work. knock on wood & midnight hour were written here. #memphis

The room that Dr. King was in when he was shot is still there, exactly as it was. It is the last thing you will see in the museum, after you walk through the exhibit about the garbage collectors’ strike in Memphis, which was why he had come to Memphis. And then you will stare out the window onto the balcony, and out at the window from which he was shot across the way, and you will not have many words after that.

We left the next morning for New Orleans, boarding The City of New Orleans just as the sun was rising over Memphis. It was an incredible three days, and we will definitely be back.

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The full photo set is on Flickr.

*THE RULES

In order to say that you have been to a state, you must have spent the night, or stopped, got out of the car, and had a meal. Changing planes does not count.

PLAYLISTS

We both made CD’s for this trip; there was some overlap, but otherwise they definitely reflected the personality of the person who made it. Glenn had two discs, one for songs about Memphis, and one for songs recorded in Memphis, while I just went for one overarching definitive list combining both. A Spotify playlist of mine is below. I will note that the exclusion of things like Marc Cohn and Paul Simon are deliberate.

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Nashville In 15 Minutes

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The SO’s brother got married in Nashville this past weekend. We’d never been there before, somehow, and were therefore more than willing to trek down to Tennessee. However, this also meant that our sightseeing time was incredibly limited because of family events. I drafted a top-down list of must-sees/must-do’s so that if circumstances dictated we had to cut some things, we’d still have gotten the most important things out of the way.

When I say “most important” I mean “most important personally.” This is where you have to do enough research to be able to know what that is. If you just ask people or rely on lists (even the helpful list supplied by the bride in the welcome bag) you will see someone else’s concept of what is important. Luckily, for Nashville, this was not difficult.

A couple of logistical notes: We didn’t rent a car, because it would have been more expensive / more hassle to have it then to rely on a combination of Lyft / taxis. (So this is why we did not go to Loveless or Pancake Pantry, before you even start.) Also, we stayed in the West End because one of the wedding hotels was there so we could hop the shuttle to and from the wedding, which was out at a plantation about 10 miles away.

After ditching the bags at the hotel, our first order of business was lunch. We walked, because the restaurant was less than a mile away, and we are New Yorkers who just get frustrated at having to drive everywhere, and we also had to pick up passes generously arranged by a friend at the CMA building. A couple of blocks from the hotel, we turned right on Roy Acuff Place and there was Studio B, a very unassuming building just sitting there on the corner that pretty much defined a certain Nashville sound. You can only see the inside if you take a tour as an add-on to the Country Music Hall of Fame. That would have been nice, but required way more time than we had. So we had to make do with a walk-by and a few photos, as well as resting my hand up against the bricks to try to feel some of the vibe.

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We then walked over to Arnold’s for lunch. Arnold’s is a “meat-and-three” place, which means you get one meat serving and three sides. Literally, I found this place by poking around on Chowhound, because I was totally overwhelmed by looking at Eater, and in asking around, I got way too much information about places that were too involved to deal with given the limited amount of time we had. It wasn’t until we were standing on line that I saw the TWO James Beard awards on the wall and realized I had inadvertently picked a real gem. The people in front of us said they drove 9 hours to get there and had been doing that for 10 years. It was the best meal we had the entire weekend, hands down; we both had the roast beef, which absolutely was to die for, and fried green tomatoes and mac and cheese and green beans. I wouldn’t have had the green beans, but the people in front of us raved about them nonstop so I felt like I kind of had to try it. We had one piece of chess pie between us because the place was so crowded that the staff got backed up and couldn’t cut up the pies to keep up with demand.

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I skipped Third Man Records, which is just a couple of blocks away from Arnold’s, because our entire weekend got rearranged once I arrived and saw the wedding schedule. I will leave out the painful details, but it involved family photos and needing to be at the wedding facility hours earlier than originally expected. To be honest, I don’t even LIKE Jack White, and was going because I kind of admire his enterprise and because I was in Nashville. But family obligations scuttled all but 90 minutes of Saturday for sightseeing so we had to get the essentials in on Friday. Again, this is why the priority list is important.

From Arnold’s, we grabbed a cab to the Ryman. It was a walkable distance, but it was warm, and we were trying to save time. We took a cab and didn’t use Lyft because someone got out of a cab in front of the restaurant just as we were walking out. (The rest of the time we used Lyft. It was great, but I can’t see myself ever doing this in NYC.)

At the Ryman, we opted for the self-guided tour. The big difference is that with a guided tour, you get to see the dressing rooms, so you decide if that’s something you need. Me, I just needed to walk into the place and I instantly teared up and got goosebumps. There’s an intro film that’s worth seeing, but after that, you’re on your own. You can take photos and walk around as long as you want; there are a couple of glass cases and vitrines with artifacts and costumes, and upstairs in one of the hallways is a selection of Hatch Show Prints posters signed by artists who have performed there.

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The building is lovely and breathtaking and definitely one of those venues that lives up to all of the hype and then some. I could just imagine the resonance with all that ancient, ancient wood. Once we were done sightseeing, we literally took another 20 minutes to assess seating options for the day we come back here for an actual show we care about. I got a shot glass from the gift shop; there are generic Ryman Hatch posters but I passed those up for the day I get to come back here etc. If you want to get your photo taken onstage at the Ryman, there are various packages you can buy, starting at $18, which I felt was kind of a bargain. But that’s the only way you can make that happen. It was kind of fun to sit up in the balcony and watch various groups–many of whom arrived very dressed up indeed–get their photos taken.

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Next, we walked down Broadway to get a sense of the spectacle. It is literally lined with bars that on this gorgeous, sunny, 70-degree day had all of their windows open and every single one had live music going on. I wondered what the most over-performed song would be, and in the time I was there, it was “Jackson,” which I heard three times in less than 40 minutes.

Hatch Show Print was next. It’s now located in the same building as the Country Music Hall of Fame, but you don’t need to have a ticket for the HOF to visit Hatch. It’s now located in what’s essentially the lobby of the HOF, and that big ugly AT&T building looming over downtown displaced its original location. There’s a gallery on the outer edge but the print shop and larger store is located on the other side of the lobby (we originally walked into the gallery and thought “this is it??” before I asked someone). You can take a tour, which allows you the opportunity to print your own poster, or you can stand there watching the print shop operate and listen to the tour before you decide that you do not need to take the tour. There are lots of lovely things available for purchase; I got a mug and some postcards, but there are all sorts of reprints and fun posters and t-shirts and hats and books on letterpress. This was less monumental to me because although they are trying to make it feel authentic, and you can see all that ancient original typeface on the wall, it’s in the corner of a brand new shiny building. But, still, it was well worth the visit.

I then tried to go boot shopping on Broadway. It only took me 10 minutes and 2 stores before I realized that this was like someone shopping for electronics on Fifth Avenue back home. I am sure there is a great place in Nashville to shop for boots, but it is not on Broadway, and I would not have time to figure out where I should go and be able to go there on this trip.

Friday night was the rehearsal dinner, which I only mention because it was at Union Station, which is now a hotel — but they’ve retained all the original features of the old, statuesque train station. It was absolutely gorgeous.

Saturday we were up very, very early so we could get to the HOF when the doors opened. (This will also explain why we didn’t go out to hear any music on Friday night.) As soon as we got off the elevator on the first exhibit floor, we opened up the maps and made very brutal decisions about what we were and weren’t going to see, e.g. we skipped right by the Kenny Rogers and Miranda Lambert exhibits. We still had more than enough time, I thought, for people who are not huge country fans; we went through at a brisk pace, with stops for things like Hank Williams’ suit, Carl Perkins’ shoes (yes, those shoes) and Maybelle Carter’s guitar. On the third floor, we wandered through an exhibit about Bakersfield and its connection to Route 66 and the Dust Bowl, which ended up being more interesting than I would have envisioned (and very relevant due to our travel earlier this year) before turning a corner and seeing a thing in a case that drew me to it like a tractor beam.

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My god, Gram Parsons’ Nudie suit! Be still my beating heart.

I did not know this suit was there. I would have paid full admission just to see this one thing alone. I had no idea it even still existed and wasn’t lost with the rest of the Parsons estate in its tangled mess. Every photo I took is out of focus because my hands were shaking with excitement.

This is why these places are important, because everyone who visits it can have a moment like this.

At the end, you walk into a rotunda with the actual Hall of Fame nominees, and here it resembles Cooperstown more than it does Cleveland because it is a room with the plaques which is ringed by ‘WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN’ and if you know even the tiniest bit about the history of this music you will feel reverent and respectful.

As much as I enjoyed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when I visited it, the truth is that you do not get that feeling in Cleveland. I think that is largely a function of how disjointed that building is, and the crazy escalator setup, and the odd spaces in the building. I really loved that you can see the library and archive in the CMHOF, it’s got clear walls facing the main exhibit area, and it gives you a sense of the weight of the collection behind the building, if that makes sense.

We then made a trip back through again, at a slightly slower pace, to revisit some of the exhibits we wanted to spend a little bit more time with. And, yes, I went to visit Gram’s suit one more time.

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At 10:30, we grabbed a cab back, I got my hair done, and then met the SO up the street at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, which had a location 5 minutes’ walk from the hotel. Hot Chicken is one of those ‘unique to Nashville’ things and although we couldn’t go to any of the original places, Hattie B’s is highly rated enough that I felt like we had an authentic Nashville experience. I could drink sweet tea all day, and the mac and cheese with pimiento was awesome. FWIW, I went for medium, and I could have definitely done hot and still enjoyed it.

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This left us enough time to get dressed and head out to the wedding. Not nearly enough time for Nashville, but at least I saw the things I had to see, and saw enough to know we’d genuinely like to come back. But I am glad for the intense planning that I did, so that we got to make the best use of every minute we had, and were fearless in cutting things out when we had to.

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Ottermania: Visiting Monterey and the Monterey Bay Aquarium

“I think I saw an otter!” I said, as we crossed over a bridge near Elkhorn Slough, on our way into Monterey. My significant other nodded indulgently. “No, seriously, I’m not making this up,” I insisted. But how would I know? It’s not like I run into otters every day or had ever seen one in the wild. But this is exactly why we were headed to Monterey.

I don’t know how I started watching sea otter videos on YouTube. It was probably just one of those links that someone put on Facebook or Twitter–”Hey, this is cute, check it out.” It definitely wasn’t from my childhood, because I never held an opinion about otters prior to the advent of readily available video on the internet. At this point, though, I’ve watched otters fostered in people’s houses and baby otters being blow dried and otters being rescued and otters doing tricks. I’ve watched people whose only job seems to be snuggling otters, otters in bathtubs, otters floating around in the ocean.

At this point, if someone I know sends me an otter video link, chances are high that I’ve already seen it. It’s relaxing. It’s cute. It’s enjoyable. It is something I am not ever going to see in the course of my day to day life, commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Let’s face it: there are days where I consider myself lucky to encounter a patch of grass. (The W Hotel on Union Square used to have planters outside with small circles of green grass, and I’d detour out of my way just so I could run my hand across it.) I know, I am a tough city lady who eats gravel for breakfast and fights the dragons of the New York City subway daily. But I love these little, fuzzy otters, dammit, and they are the best stress relief ever invented.

Many of those videos originated from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, who has a world-renown sea otter program since 1984. And that’s probably when I discovered that they had a live webcam pointed at their sea otter enclosure. At this point, all I have to do is type “Monterey..” into any web browser on any computer or device that I own and it will take me to the live otter web cam page. I’ve watched them swim and play with ice and dive in and out of the round pool I started calling the ‘hot tub’. I’ve watched the daily otter enrichment activities so often that I can recite the docent’s talk almost by heart. Some people watch cats, some people watch stupid human tricks…I watch sea otters.

So when we were planning a southwestern roadtrip for this spring, and I realized we would be within shouting distance of Monterey, there was no way we weren’t going to visit the otters. I know that Monterey is a beautiful and historical city and luckily, I already visited when I was a teenager and dutifully did my John Steinbeck tourism then. Because we arrived around 11am, dumped our stuff at the hotel next to the aquarium, and went directly there, with enormous excitement and anticipation. I was going to see the otters!

The only day we could fit the aquarium in on this trip was a Saturday. I knew this likely meant we would be sharing it with thousands of people and a gazillion families and small children. So there were a couple of lines of defense: First, I bought tickets in advance on the internet, anticipating a lengthy Saturday morning line (and was 100% correct there). Second, we ate lunch at the sit-down restaurant and not in the self-service cafeteria. Third, I booked a private tour of the aquarium, which navigated us behind-the-scenes and got us around most of the enormous crowds. (It also provided the opportunity to ask as many questions as I wanted about the otters or anything else.)

But first, before I visited the exhibitions or watched a documentary or went to the gift shop to peruse otter merchandise (and there is A LOT of this in Monterey), I had to go say hello to the otters.

The otter enclosure is two floors, enclosed, with the opening on the roof deck which is only open to the trainers and staff. The view from the webcam is from above, but I quickly oriented myself to the fake rocks and the hot tub and the otters–now swimming around on the other side of the glass from me. Abby, Gidget, Rosa, and Kit (all named after Steinbeck characters!) were there, floating on their backs, diving down into the tank, hauling themselves out on the rocks, bumping into each other. I could honestly have stayed at the otter tank all day, and it’s a good thing there isn’t anything to sit on anywhere nearby or I wouldn’t have left. (I am sure this is deliberate, because I am positive I am not the only one who feels this way.)

My first impression was that they were so much bigger than I expected. This is probably because many of the videos online are of the tiny adorably fuzzy baby or younger otters. But grown otters are about 55 pounds, so we’re talking dog-sized. And these things move fast, for a 55 lb mammal with a fur coat on their backs. But they did not disappoint in person.

Then, we headed for the restaurant. I know, there are dozens of great restaurants in Monterey, but heading to one of them would have involved leaving the aquarium (and the otters) and the subsequent loss of time in the aquarium (and the otters). So we opted to eat inside the aquarium, and that ended up being a great decision. We eschewed the self-service cafeteria for the civilized sit-down section, which had less screaming children. The food and service were great, and I didn’t feel like I was paying a lot of money for crappy food just to be able to not have to leave the building.

But the real wonder is that the restaurant overlooks Monterey Bay–the aquarium is housed in an old cannery building–and when you are seated, the hostess notes the binoculars that are helpfully placed on your table. Before you think this is a cute gimmick, I will point out that we saw at least a dozen otters swimming and diving outside while we ate, and the helpful reference card attached to the binoculars noted sea birds and other animals–like whales!–that you could see while dining.

The next stop was the theater for their showing of “Luna, An Otter’s Story.” Before you snicker, the audience was split 60/40 between adults and children. But this isn’t the kind of video presentation you’d expect; instead, it’s presented with the lights on by a live narrator (an aquarium volunteer, all of whom were smart and friendly), who asked questions to engage the younger audience members and provided enough data points to engage those of us over the age of 12. I had seen much of the footage in the documentary “Otter 501,” which shows up on PBS from time to time, and is also available on YouTube. It gives the non-marine biologist a solid grounding on the history of sea otter conservation and the Aquarium’s role in it. (I could write a whole post just about the documentary, so just go watch it if you care about otters at all.)

After the screening, we quickly returned to the otter tank in order to get a good spot for the 1:30 otter enrichment. The best spot is one on the very edge, because the aquarium staffer who narrates the event will ask tall people to allow short people to get in front of them, and if you’re on the edge, you’ll have a good spot but not have to move. It will be mobbed, and there are screens, and honestly, I think the webcam gives you a better view of the feedings. It was a lot more fun to let the crowds die down and then watch the otters get back to being themselves, for lack of a better term.

You know how they say that watching fish is relaxing? Watching otters swim is relaxing times infinity.

Once the otter session was over, we visited the penguins (who mostly seemed annoyed at the enormous crowds gathered around their enclosure) and viewed some other exhibits, before returning to the entrance to meet up with the tour guide for our private tour. Now, private tours are not cheap, but you get your own tour guide and you can bring up to six people. I’ll be totally honest: I booked this because I wanted to be able to get as much otter information as I could, so when called to reserve the tour, I asked for an “otter focus,” understanding from the various documentaries that that didn’t mean I was going to get to play with the otters, as much as I might like to.

I can’t begin to stress enough how this tour was worth every penny. We saw every highlight of the aquarium and then some, both behind the scenes and in front of the tanks. Unintentionally, this was the best possible strategy on a busy summer Saturday, as the tour routed us around the crowds and away from the masses. Joe, our tour guide, was able to answer every single question we had about otters, the aquarium, otter conservation, and was an absolutely endless font of information about marine life and the aquarium and its exhibits for two and a half hours. We saw the kelp forest repeatedly, because of its importance to the aquarium and the otters especially, the deep sea exhibit, the special exhibits, the jellyfish, the octopus, the hands-on exhibits. There was literally no corner of the aquarium that we didn’t visit. I didn’t think I cared about jellyfish, but Joe coaxed me into touching one gently. There was the bucket we walked by that read “TENTACLES”. And, there was a brief, quiet tiptoe past the otter rehabilitation tanks.

By the time we were done, all I wanted to do was get a drink and sit down for a few minutes…before returning to the otter tank one more time. It was the end of the day so it was easy to walk between levels and between windows and get maximum views of the otters as they swam and floated and played and hauled out on the ‘rocks’. I would have stayed there until they kicked me out, except that I needed to get to the gift shop before it closed. There are otter shirts and earrings and pens and mugs and posters and pretty much everything you could possibly need or want from a marine mammal merchandise perspective. (And, if the aquarium doesn’t have anything to your liking, there’s a tourist t-shirt shop just down the street on Cannery Row that has even more items, including a great shirt that said “Hairy Otter” with an otter wearing glasses, as well as one reading “Plays Well With Otters” which, unfortunately, was not available in adult sizes.)

When we finally left the aquarium and returned to our room at the Intercontinental (which is, quite literally, right next door), there was a stuffed otter waiting for us on our pillow, available for purchase, with proceeds going to the aquarium.

The next morning, we woke up ridiculously early on a cold and foggy Sunday morning to head north to Elkhorn Slough in order to go kayaking. There are kayaking opportunities right in Monterey Bay, but Elkhorn Slough is a protected coastal wetland, providing more chances to actually see otters, and also not quite as intimidating a body of water as the bay to non-kayakers. I had kayaked before many times, but a very long time ago, and the SO had zero kayaking experience, and so we joined a tour led by Monterey Bay Kayaks.

There were just four other people in our group, and we were in the water by 9am, dragging our kayaks into the slough under the watchful eye of a giant group of seals. Two minutes later we were floating adjacent to a raft of male otters–our guide called it “a big otter bachelor party,” and we watched them swim and play and one floated right by, cracking open their breakfast on a rock on their chest. We saw three rafts of otters (a group of otters is actually called a raft), two baby otters, and countless seals and sea lions, all right there, in front of us, hanging out and doing their thing. Again, to a city girl, this was like paddling around in a National Geographic special, and when sea water splashed on my face, I didn’t immediately panic or worry about where I could get a tetanus shot, the way I would if East River water came within an inch of my skin.

Given that the slough is an estuarine reserve, there are rules in order to protect the animals that live there. You can’t come too close, you can’t ‘harass’ them, you can’t make them nervous, you can’t encourage them to climb on your boat or feed them. The guide was awesome and an endless font of knowledge on the marine life and ecosystem, and did a solid job in making sure we were close enough to see things but not so close as to make the animals feel threatened. We paddled for three miles and it was worth every second of it, even if the last pass through two boat docks absolutely covered in seals and sea lions barking loudly was a little unnerving, but still all kinds of awesome. I’ll take my chances against the seals vs. a subway rat any day, and despite fog and chilly water and kayaking skill deficiency, I was happier in the kayak than I would have been stuck in a tour group on a larger boat, which is your other option to tour Elkhorn Slough.

Monterey isn’t that far away from points of interest in California, and it’s not like I won’t ever be back, but I’m still glad I planned and went for Maximum Otter in this one trip. The aquarium is amazing and is, as they say, worth a detour if you’re heading for the Pacific Coast Highway or are hanging out in Northern California, even if you’re not an otter groupie like me.

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David Bowie is…. exhibit at the V&A in London

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We arrived at the Victoria & Albert Museum at 9:45am, thinking we were late and had just missed our 10am ticket entry time–only for the guard to tell us the museum wasn’t opened yet, but that when it did open, we just had to walk straight ahead to the entry for the exhibit. And we stood there as the crowd grew and grew, and people walked up and said that they were there for the Special Exhibit but didn’t have tickets, and the guard told them that there were already 400 people waiting upstairs (we took the subway route from the South Kensington tube station, so were underground) and that they had to go up there. I clutched my tickets tighter.

And then, 10 am, we walk up the stairs and straight through several galleries and I keep waiting to hit some kind of queue, but then there are the signs and someone checks my ticket and hands me an audio guide, telling me to hit play when I walk in the gallery. One more ticket check and I am in. There is, quite honestly, one person ahead of us and we had about 15 blessed minutes with no one else in the gallery because we went in the alternate entrance.

I am not much of an audio guide person but I went in and clicked play and it took me 5-7 minutes to realize that this is not your mother’s audio guide as it plays based on where you are standing in the gallery, not based on some rigid recitation of a path it requires you to take. Once I realized that I could walk where I wanted to walk and skip what I wanted to skip and the guide would go with me – or that I could go back to something and hear it again (or not) – I was a big, big fan. This is genius. It was a little buggy – there was a lot of waving of receiver boxes at antennas in some spots – but the ability to proceed at my own pace, in my own order, was vital to my enjoyment of this exhibit. It also meant that I wasn’t stuck behind people from Iowa who had no clue as to who David Bowie was but could spend extra time reading handwritten lyrics (and there are quite a lot of those).

I had been warned about the introductory plaques at the start of each exhibit section and how I could skip them, and you might be able to do that too. There was a lot of standing and staring at items of clothing that I had seen him wear over the years, and being a few feet or inches from this stage costume or that one – that one I had in a life-size poster on my wall for so many years, seeing it in person was kind of odd and jarring and yet – hello, old friend. The Scary Monsters album artwork was actually produced in a format about sixteen times an album cover, and then reduced to size. There is a computer program called the “Verbasizer” and Bowie talked about how it helped him access a subconscious part of his brain with his conscious self. I think I watched that about five times.

The amount of planning and work and visualization is not astonishing because it is Bowie but to see the work on paper, the makeup charts and the lighting cues and the stage sketches and models and the fabric swatches. None of this could have possibly been accidental or thrown together and I am glad that I can appreciate it now and not be chided that this kind of work was not very rock and roll. It made me feel lazy and self-indulgent.

You walk into a room and it’s, “Oh, it’s the Berlin room,” and I think that one got me the most, the handwritten thank you note from Christopher Isherwood and the koto he used on “Moss Garden” and a painting of one James Osterberg and it is a tiny room, really, but yet they managed to somehow pick the pieces that would put together the entirety of his Berlin phase into this room. And it is sparse yet overwhelming. It was put together the same way the rest of the exhibit was, with a fan’s eye and a curator’s eye and a historian’s eye, all at the same time, working together. That is really the genius working here.

And then the final room, floor to expanded ceiling of more stage outfits and video screens and PLAY THIS ALBUM LOUD with live footage, you move from side to side or stand in the middle and your view is different, what you hear is different, and other times you take off the headphones because it is ear-splittingly, concert-volume loud. That was where I felt kinship with some of the other people there, the ones moving their lips probably without realizing they were doing it, the ones whose faces filled with recognition or remembrance when a different clip hit the screen: We know. We remember. We were there. We watched this a million times. At first I wished it had been in the middle of the exhibit, because I was worried I didn’t have enough time (I had a budget of 2 hours for the exhibit and then half an hour for the gift shop before I had to get on a train back to Paris) and then I realized it was the second-to-last room and that I had plenty of time. And of course it would be the second-to-last room because it was the room that synthesized everything you had just seen, if you didn’t know anything about him or didn’t know anything beyond the fact that he was David Bowie, here is the summation of everything you just saw. This is what it produced. I was just glad I had all those memories and I could attach them like velcro to items that I watched or saw or listened to as I passed through the rooms.

The gift shop will only take you about 15 minutes if you look at the website ahead of time and know what you are going to buy. The catalog is a must and I am just glad that I had a friend get one for me well before I knew I was going to be able to visit.

There are no more advance tickets so you have to show up and wait, but if you are reading this web site you know how to do that. (I ended up with tickets simply because a Twitter-friend was at the museum with her dad one morning and I said, “I wish I knew you were going, you could have gotten me tickets” and she said, “I’m still here, what do you need?” Because advance tickets sold out not long after that.) The exhibit is also coming to Toronto later, and you should go.

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HAVE LOVE, WILL TRAVEL: Scandinavian Edition

Yeah, so, this was my view tonight in Turku

We literally spent weeks if not months researching airfare deals for this summer’s excursions. Scandinavia came together because of a new budget carrier called AirBerlin, which flies from JFK to an assortment of European destinations via–you guessed it–Berlin. This was all fine, except for the part where we left an hour late, so we landed an hour late. This was even fine, because we were automatically rebooked onto a SAS flight, and I was so placid about this issue that I walked to the connecting flight singing the opening riff to “Zoo Station” until my companion realized what I was doing and rolled his eyes so hard they almost fell out of his head.

It was, quite honestly, all fine until we landed in Stockholm… only to see the dreaded See baggage agent regarding delayed baggage sign on the baggage carousel. This left us standing in our first European queue of the trip along with a handful of other AirBerlin casualties, texting our friends in the GA line that we would probably not be queuing tonight, as well as frantically emailing our AirBnB host that we were running a little later than we expected.

It helped that the SAS baggage agent said, “This happens all the time, they’ll be on the next flight, we’ll have your bags by 9pm, you’ll have them in the morning.” But still, jet lagged and running on fumes is not the best state to be making your way through a new city to buy socks and a couple of t-shirts and some replacement toiletries, instead of the plan of dumping our bags at the flat we were renting and running up to Friends Arena. And it also collided with our Saturday queuing plans: while staying in someone’s flat certainly saved us tons of money and I love being in an actual neighborhood, it also meant that we had to wait around until the missing bags were delivered instead of just telling the delivery company to leave them with the bellman.

They sell Bruce-only magazines in Swedish at the grocery store

But, you know, we were in Sweden and we seeing Bruce Springsteen in Sweden. His photo was on all the newspapers, there were Springsteen magazines on sale next to the cash registers at the grocery stores. Everything you have heard about Sweden and Bruce is absolutely, 100% true, and it made me sad I had waited so long to come and see it for myself.

Your kind of love drives a man insane

Google Street View is such a godsend when planning travel to a new place. It doesn’t eliminate mistakes or take the entire sense of adventure out of traveling, but it does give you a leg up on finding your way around for the first time in a new place where you don’t speak the language. It also doesn’t help you figure out which of the many different train platforms is the place you want to go for the commuter rail, as opposed to the long-distance rail… and during rush hour on a Friday in Sweden you can’t just count on “follow the Springsteen shirts” either.

But we made it, and we made it to the show, and into the pit, and even ran into friends in the process. I started to run out of steam by the time we made it to “the Rising” but we stuck it out in the center through that, and then LOHAD, before moving out to the side where there was room to breathe for the end of the show. The people around us thought we were crazy during “Mountain of Love.”

See, the Friday show wasn’t in the original plan. The whole trip arose after the shows in Finland were announced. We figured out that we could see both Sweden and Finland in a week; we were going to leave on Friday night, see Stockholm 2, go to Finland, come back for Stockholm 3. But then I didn’t feel comfortable arriving on show day. I said, “Maybe we should leave on Thursday.” “Well, if we’re going to get there on Friday, we should just see the show Friday night, too.” “Wait, there’s a show Friday night?” Like I said, we hadn’t been watching this run of shows because it was at the start of the tour; it was only the small arena show that made us change our minds (and now, how glad we were that we did).

My favorite random person we met at the shows in Sweden was the older gentleman who overheard our accents and was delighted to talk to a Springsteen fan from New York. He said he had been a fan since 1975. I asked him if he’d seen Bruce back then. He said, no, he didn’t, and that he was probably the only person in Sweden who would say that he hadn’t been there – because the venue held 500 people and at least 150,000 people swear up and down that they were there.

I took a boat and I took a plane

I realize I will insult everyone in Finland by saying, it took me about an hour of research to realize that we could skip Helsinki and not miss all that much. (Having to skip St. Petersburg, only three hours by train from Helsinki, was another matter, but as Mr. Radecki pointed out, “They put people like you in work camps, we’re not going to Russia.”) We could have flown both ways but there were also ferries, and the ferry went straight to Turku, the city where the show was actually happening. The boat cost something like 62 Euro for both of us AND a cabin with a window. Yes, it took all day, but after jet lag, two shows, and then running around seeing everything in Stockholm on Sunday, I was happy to get some extra rest. Keep in mind, this is a boat on the Baltic Sea and not Royal Caribbean to the Bahamas. There was a small outside deck in the back that was mostly there for smokers, because it was COLD outside.

Apparently this boat is a big party boat on the overnight sailing, but during the day, it was mostly Finnish people coming back and buying cartons and cartons of beer and other beverages in the duty free, and a handful of people wearing Springsteen shirts and taking advantage of the cheap and direct crossing.

We did take advantage of the seafood restaurant once we finally decided to venture out of our cabin again:

This was lunch on the 11 hour ferry ride

Total time from docking, to getting into the rental car, to having numbers inked on our hands at the arena was less than 45 minutes. The car rental wasn’t cheap, but there was no other way to get out to the arena except to take a taxi, and at 20 Euro each way, that would have added up quickly. Plus, with the car we could ferry friends and visit the local mega grocery store.

If visiting local grocery stores seems like a theme in our travels, that’s because it is. Buying drinks and snacks and even the occasional lunch or breakfast helps travel money go a long way, plus it is just absolutely fascinating. In Scandinavia, it was also the only way to keep the budget down. We had lunch the first day we were in Stockholm, just upstairs at the main department store because we were exhausted and starving and needed to eat something at that very minute–and it cost us $50. A three-day travel pass was $75. Dinner at a burger joint after the show on Friday was $30. On Saturday, once we’d gotten our luggage back and had our own clothes again, we hit the grocery store and played “hey, what do you think THIS is?” and bought prepared meals to eat after the show, because we had the flat and a microwave. In Finland we just picnicked, except for night two after the show where we found the 24-hour burger joint and figured out how to order by listening to other people ahead of us order.

[Finnish was completely incomprehensible and nothing was in English. This was how we managed to embarrass ourselves in the grocery store by not understanding that we had to weigh our fruit before bringing it to the cash register. Swedish by comparison was much, much easier, in terms of trying to recognize patterns and context. For the record, no one in either country sounded remotely like the Swedish Chef, which eliminated any tendency to make “bork bork bork” jokes. PROBABLY FOR THE BEST.]

The Finnish grocery store had the biggest salmon department I had ever seen, and more kinds of herring than you ever knew existed. They also appear to have a thing for Pringles, based on the enormous displays and large advertisements we saw while driving around. I do not have similar observations about the Swedish grocery stores we were in, because they were smaller, in-city stores that are like any small, in-city grocery store anywhere, to be honest.

We ended up being able to see some of Turku, even though every Finnish person we met made the same kind of jokes I would make about being stuck in, say, Boise, Idaho. It’s a university town with quite a bit of history, being the oldest town in Finland. Mostly I was interested in the Russian influence on some of the older buildings and architecture. I didn’t get to see anything Russian-landscape looking until we took the bus to the airport in Helsinki, but then at least got the glimpses of those thin birch trees interspersed with pine forests. (I know this is probably movie-Russia or stereotypical Russia, but my mother made me watch Dr. Zhivago a lot as a kid. Sorry.)

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So look for me walkin’ just any old way

It was a 15 minute drive from the hotel to the arena in Finland, and the check-ins this time out were a reasonable 4 per day, and no overnight check-ins. (Much of this, I hear, is coming from the organization, because none of the promoters want multi-day queues any more, or hordes of fans showing up 10 times a day or in the middle of the night.)

The rules of the list!

Friends Arena, in an adjacent suburb of Stockholm, was an entirely different story. This was a brand-new arena, located next to the commuter rail station. This would have been great if there was a connection from the rail station to the arena. They are building one, but it is not finished yet. You can cross over the rail line on a new bridge, but not connect to it. Before you think I am whining for nothing, here is a helpful satellite view:

Screen shot 2013-05-21 at 5.31.34 PM

This isn’t even a big deal if you’re just turning up and going to the show. But imagine walking that multiple times a day to check in for the GA line, which was located in the park just adjacent to the venue. There is a bus that runs from a nearby metro station, but the bus only ran 3 times an hour, and if you missed the bus or the bus didn’t show up, you were even further away from the venue than the suburban rail station, with no time to walk and very little time to find a taxi. (And the taxis were rip-off central. Even Swedes complained about the rip-off taxis.)

This is the kind of situation that makes a girl from Brooklyn very, very nervous. However, this is Sweden, where the buses and subways run on schedule. Exactly. To the minute. When we showed up for the first check-in after getting our numbers and saw two Swedish girls standing there with numbers 12 and 13 on their hands, we realized they would not be gambling with such low numbers, and learned to calm down when the bus was on time, every single time.

There was a return bus at about 15 minutes after the hour, but if the check-in ran long (like it did the night Jake Clemons showed up), or when there were more announcements than usual that had to be transmitted in both Swedish and English (lingua franca in the queue), we had to hoof it back to the commuter rail. However, short of camping in the park, it wasn’t like there were any hotels or accommodation immediately adjacent, so staying near the Central train station was actually about as smart as we could have gotten about the whole thing.

However, it is no wonder that my jet lagged dreams the week after coming back were full of queues and long dusty walks.

I learned that in Sweden and also in Finland, there is a law that gives anyone the right to camp on public land, which is why people could set up tents in a public park adjacent to the arena with impunity, or in the field next to the parking lot.

(Of course it goes without mentioning that it is somewhat flabbergasting to a New Yorker that a bunch of 20-30 year old kids could set up tents in a park in a major city and be perfectly safe. On that front, you go, Sweden.)

I travel from Maine to Mexico

On the second week in Stockholm, I was able to leverage hotel points to get us into a nice hotel minutes from the Central train station. Of course, these were the days where all we did, pretty much, was go back and forth from the hotel to the queue and back to the hotel again, with stops at the grocery store. When you travel, you learn that a day is actually a very long time, and we fit everything we had wanted to see into our one sightseeing day. So we could catch up on the sleep we didn’t get in Finland and do some shopping.

Doing the back and forth, it doesn’t take long before you start to feel like you live there and are commuting. You start to calculate the best entrance into the metro, the quickest access to the commuter rail, what car to ride in so that you exit closest to the staircase. You feel smug taking out your transit pass while others are standing in a line waiting to buy a ticket.

It is, however, absolutely exhausting. I realize that commuting back and forth from the venue to your hotel is not camping outside for eight days but anyone who says there is no effort in queuing for shows any more is just plain wrong. It might be less effort, and a different kind of effort, but there is still plenty of effort involved.

One Direction were at Friends Arena while we were in Finland, and were clearly staying at our hotel in Stockholm, based on the teenage girls camped outside when we arrived. The next day, we ran into a small horde of 1D fans at the grocery store in the basement of the train station (which is such a brilliant idea I cannot even begin to tell you. Not an artisanal market, a regular grocery store.), clearly buying provisions for the train ride to Copenhagen and the next show.

“They’re like your second cousin, twice removed, if you think about it,” said Glenn, after a few minutes of watching them buy water and gummi bears and sandwiches and snacks, laughing as they stuffed everything into their backpacks.

All I could do was nod in agreement.

(When I told my niece about the girls in the train station, her response was, “I am definitely going to follow One Direction some day,” so let me apologize right now to her mother because it will be quite obvious where she gets that from.)

Next stop: Milan!

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