Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sue singer-songwriters!

It was one of those occasions that music really gets to you. A pleasant location - a quiet pool - and the music on the sound system was not of the unobtrusive elevator style music you can’t remember anymore when the next song starts. It was good solid 1970s style pop music. And it triggered a discussion about music. Well, it was not much of a discussion, because we agreed. Music was better when we were young. So there’s the proof. I’m getting old.

I’m probably too old for today’s popular music. There is so little that interest me. Today’s artists and producers are only reaching back to old familiar songs and use ‘m as samples in a techno beat. And then there is so much superficial commercial dance music that I ask myself: where has the music gone? Surely, Lady Gaga, the much hyped darling of the music industry, somehow fails to connect to my musical taste. In my days – the high school years that are so important in our memory – we listened to rock music. And with the years came the appreciation of all kinds of popular artists and performers. Yes, I started to like classical music as well. But as far as popular music goes, artists should make an effort. We are music consumers, we absorb lyrics and notes, we have a right to be entertained with songs, or if you like, a musical concept that is the result of a joined creative process between writer, artist and producer. Listen to the Stones’ great Miss You – that instrumental downbeat just melts together with passionate way Jagger treats us to the lyrics. I am thrilled when I listen to the 1940s style big band music, how thoroughly produced a complete array of brass instruments can join together in a fascinating piece of music that really illustrates what the word ‘swing’ means. Do not get me started about Frank Sinatra – there has never been greater performer, a singer who can hypnotize his audience. Because he does not sing, no, he acts the lyrics with his voice and timbre.

There are far too many artists and bands I like, and I can’t list ‘m all here. My absolute favorite song is You’re so vain by that great singer Carly Simon. And no rock band can beat Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy – and truly, there has never been a greater music video. And why do I show here a link to Robbie Williams and the lovely Jane Horrocks? Only for the sheer joy you witness when these people perform and the conductor’s enthusiasm… Now that is music.

So why all this? Listening to that 1970s hit song Shout, by The Trammps, we concluded that the music we know as the Philly sound was so good, and that is such a shame that there is so little original worthwhile music today. And we concluded that the utmost uninteresting artists that are so popular today, are the so called singer-songwriters. There is no music that triggers an acute allergy as these thin and shallow songs with me. A shocking level of musical nihilism, that is primarily embraced by the sub intellectual crowd can only be listened too while drinking huge amounts of alcohol. What we would regard as a promising debut by a 17 year old high school kid with a guitar on a school concert, is nothing more as pretentious, but pathetic attempt to bring us amateur style poetry accompanied by an adult with a guitar. Who act as if their audience is their therapy. “Amazing that many of these guys have to perform in bars in their home country, and are only popular around,” a friend once said. Go figure. Today’s singer-songwriters are an insult to legacy of the real great singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Luka Bloom, an apparently popular singer-songwriter, is responsible for this impressive lyric, of which I shall only give you a few lines:

Everyday is the rainy season
Every night is a full moon
Whenever I’m with you darling
Love is a monsoon
Goosebumps all around my skin
Whenever you come into the room
Fresh wild smell of jasmine
Love is a monsoon

I won’t continue, this kind of kindergarten poetry is enough to sue the writer. And we bring evidence. This is what the great Leonard Cohen wrote:

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she's half crazy
But that's why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you've always been her lover

And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you've touched her perfect body with your mind.

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said "All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them"
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you'll trust him
For he's touched your perfect body with his mind.

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror

And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she's touched your perfect body with her mind

I rest my case.

Leonard Cohen

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Let me stay in a hotel

As a kid my parents took me to hotels during vacations. Hotels were big square buildings, with high ceilings and long hollow corridors. And at night, it was even a bit sinister. Nights were never as dark like in hotels, and since the old style hotel rooms in the 1960s our family could afford had no bathroom, you better grinned and bare it and waited until the next morning if you had to go. Because a walk through the dark corridor - you never could find the light switch - was an unpleasant option for a young boy.

But it must have provided the framework for my love of hotels. There are few things in life I like as much as staying in hotels. It is that special feeling, being pampered by anonymous people, the usually lovely beds, and when you wake up you know their will be a rich breakfast buffet that can keep you going for most of the day. The breakfast at the Kurhaus Hotel in Bad Bentheim, where I stayed for two nights last December, was one of the best ever. If you wished, there was even a glass of sekt for you to start the day. Sekt - Germany’s sparkling wine, a kind of champagne, at breakfast was however a bit too hedonistic for this modest Dutch guy.

 The Kurhaus Hotel, Bad Bentheim, Germany.

There are good hotels, mediocre hotels and downright bad hotels of course – but these days, thanks to the internet, it is difficult to go wrong. Many hotels in Germany, Austria or Switzerland also offer you a pool and a sauna. What else can you wish for? Well, actually, a nice bar would be great, but not all hotels see the necessity for that evening hideaway. Still, sometimes you are still surprised. One of the best hotels I had the pleasure to stay in was a modest looking building, but offered beautiful rooms with a big balcony overlooking a small town and mountains in Germany’s Black Forest. I fondly remember the evenings, relaxing on the balcony, seeing the day changing into evening, and watching hikers, farmers with their tractors, people walking the dog or just cars on the narrow one lane roads through the fields on the mountain slope. A kitchen halfway down the corridor provided a big fridge for your drinks and snacks, while free coffee and tea was available. Best of all – a room only set you back 22 Euros per night per person, including a sumptuous breakfast with locally bought ham, eggs, cheese, jams and buns.

 A room with  a view - from the Sauerland Stern Hotel in Willingen, Germany.

Now, if you get the impression I am spending my vacations in five star hotels, I’ll have to set the record straight: I don’t. In my lifetime I only stayed in real luxurious hotels in Morocco, where the rugs were so thick, that your feet sank into it. And the American Hampton Inns are very comfortable too. Related to the Hiltons, they offer the best beds you can imagine, and only the question of your stay is financing Paris Hilton might keep you awake. Great beds notwithstanding, something is not right there, just as in most American hotels. When you come down for breakfast, you are reminded every morning that the Americans still do not know how to offer a great breakfast to their guests. Granted, in the 1990s there was no breakfast at all, and you had to go out to start your day with bagels, waffles or eggs - scrambled, omelette, no cholesterol, you name, they do everything with eggs. But Europeans want breakfast in their hotel, and they do not want those greasy options. Luckily, many business men have no time to look for diner outside, so offering a breakfast has become a requirement in the USA as well. But what kind of breakfast… even the Hampton Inn directs you to room that look more like a cantina then as the breakfast room of a $120 hotel. Coffee comes from big pots with a Starbucks label, and your choice is bagel, waffle, cereal, toast. Of course, all self service and plastic plates. Pathetic is the only word to describe this. What will Americans think when they experience a European breakfast buffet, with their own China coffee pots on their table?

 Fontana Village Resort Hotel, Great Smokie Mountains, North Carolina.

The best hotels in the USA are the motels in the mountains, privately owned and not part of the big uniform chains. I fondly remember the beautiful Junge’s Motel in North Conway in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Their rooms look like luxury bungalows. But a modest looking motel near the Great Smokies National park, offering a rocking chair on a porch and a vast garden with big trees that stretched out to a streaming river, with barbecues, picnic tables and solitude not even a nature campsite could offer. And do not get me started about the Sky River Valley Inn in Skykomish, Washington… You hear the Skykomish River streaming close to your spacious room with fridge and kitchenette, and sliding doors bring you from your room directly in the riverside garden. But alas, it is deconstructed right now, and it is anybody’s guess if the owners will build it up again. Lovely quiet Skykomish in the Cascades is undergoing a massive oil spill removal, caused by the Burlington Northern and BNSF railroads, and most of the soil is removed – including many structures. And one of them is my beloved motel.

One of the most bizarre hotels I know, brought me back to my childhood just a few years ago. Hotel Zum Türken in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, is an old style establishment. Rooms with high ceilings and without bathroom, and once again I had to cross a cold looking tiled corridor at night. And I could hear the hollow sound of soldier boots in my imagination. Soldier boots, you say? Yes, because Hotel Zum Türken has a sinister history. It is located on the Obersalzberg, and anyone with interest in the Second World War will understand what I am hinting at. This is the location where Mr. Hitler used to spend his summer and winter vacations. Maybe just 50 meters away from the hotel Hitler had his Berghof built, and guests of the Hotel Zum Türken have pretty much the same view the Führer enjoyed. There is not much left of the Berghof – only a part of the stairs leading to the main entrance can be found, and under the hotel in the mountain are the rooms and corridors where Hitler and Eva Braun could seek shelter in case the allied forces would bomb the Berghof. Except for their private underground rooms, the labyrinth of corridors and rooms is open to the public. I was a grown man when I stayed here. For the six year old boy it would probably have been too scary.