Saturday, August 7, 2010

Homeland Insecurity & The Fleshtones European Summer mini-Festival Of Fun


Homeland Insecurity

Delta flight 246 (JFK to Rome Fiumicino) began with the usual tedium -several hundred passengers shuffling into the cramped confines of a jet. Okay, this one is going to be trouble, I thought. I'm as accepting as they come, but this guy was, as the less diversity-conscious would say, a 'towel-head' -there was literally a towel -a terry-cloth hand-towel at that, draped over his head -a la -alright, I've got to say it -Osama bin Ladin. Talking to himself, special assistance was needed from the increasingly exasperated stewardess to corral him into (and keep him in) his seat. From then on he was particularly uncooperative -not fastening his seat-belt, repeatedly ignoring the instructions to turn off electronic devices, etc. The stewardess called several times for male flight attendants to deal with the passenger, who finally seemed to settle in. We were probably long passed Nova Scotia when diner was served -one of my favorite distractions from the boredom of a long flight (in-flight service, see: www.Zaremblog/

It must have been about 4 hours into our 7 and 1/2 hour flight from JFK to Rome when the pilot made an announcement: due to 'navigational issues' we were returning to the nearest airport with Delta facilities -Boston. This he said, was 'less' an hour away and added that these 'navigational' difficulties in no way impaired our aircraft's ability to operate safely. We just, according to the pilot's increasingly convoluted explanations, couldn't enter 'European airspace' without resolving the issue. If we had 'navigational issues' why not land at the nearest airport, which would at that point seem to be in Newfoundland, or more likely Greenland. At least that would be interesting. What must have been a half hour later, the pilot said we'd be landing in Boston -in a little over an hour. We finally landed in Boston over an hour and a half from then (no less than Streng himself timed it), so we must have been over two hours out from Boston at the time of the first announcement. We sat on the runway at Logan. Our biggest fear was that we'd sit there for the rest of the night, then be held in the terminal until a flight later the next day. If we were experiencing navigational problems, they must have been of an usual nature -we could clearly see security officers approaching the jet. I knew it -a state trooper was led on board to question the unruly passenger with the towel over his head. After a brief interview, which I must assume was unsatisfactory, he was led away. We sat. Then his carry-on luggage was located and removed from the plane. We sat. We were told we were being held while all of the trash was removed from all of the jet's washrooms to be examined. The plane was searched. We sat. Eventually, our friend with the hand towel on his head re-appeared, smiling. The suspect turned out to be nothing more dangerous than a spaced-out member of a touring reggae band. Our 'navigational' difficulties thus cleared up, the pilot introduced the band (some mutation of 'The Bad Brains') to begrudging applause and we were allowed to proceed into the previously mentioned 'European airspace'.

Roman (un)Holiday

We got to Rome with our free day gnawed away to a late afternoon/ evening. Our hotel was outside the city's ancient Servian Walls, near the beginning of the Appian Way. We decided to at least walk to the nearest gate into the city. Passing through the walls at the Porte San Giovanni, we were immediately greeted
by the massive bulk of San Giovanni in Laterano, one of the ancient basilicas ordered built by Constantine The Great himself, this one to house the relics of St. John the Baptist. It's now directly under the jurisdiction of The Vatican. We got no more than a tanalizing glimpse of its interior as the guard ever so slowly closed the church's immense bronze doors.

Scala Sacra -encased in protective wood since the 18th century.

We had better luck as we raced across the street to marvel at 'la Scala Sacra' -believed to be the very stairs that Christ ascended to be judged by Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. Constantine had them dismantled and shipped to Rome at the requests of his Christian wife and his mother-in-law. Now the devout ascend them on their knees. I got to step #2. At the top of the stairs is the barred 'Holy Of Holies', considered the most sacred place in all of Christendom in the Dark Ages. From the Scala Sacra we were drawn on to the Colosseum -which was closed. It's better admired from the outside anyway. In front of the Colosseum, guys dressed as centurions make fools of themselves by calling out to tourists to pose for pictures with them, thereby making a lot more money than I do making a fool of myself. Turn your head slightly and there's Constantine's Arch. Erected in the period of Roman decline, the Emperor pilfered much of its sculpture from earlier monuments. A short road of ancient cobbles leads from here to the entrance of the Forum -the very epicenter of the power that was the Roman Empire. Naturally, it had just closed.

the Colosseum -everybody knows what it looks like...

Mussolini's two bad decisions (okay, two most bad decisions) were entombing a large swath of the forum under the story-thick carpet of concrete of his Via Foro Imperiali (so that mass parades could go from the Colosseum to his favorite balcony for speechifying on the Piazza Venezia). The other, of course, was actually believing that it was necessary for Italy to conquer the world -again. At this point, thanks to Il Duce's foresight we skirted along the forum's edge, stealing glimpses of the Arch Of Titus, the back of the Roman Senate, and the entrance to the Mamartine Prison -the hideously dank dungeon into which Sts. Peter and Paul were cast before execution (and which we were surprised to find 'closed for cleaning' the last time we were in Rome). Nearby, a low shed protects the remains of Julius Caesar's home -where his body was cremated and where Mark Anthony delivered his famous oration in his friend's honor. To this day, admirers leave flowers on the spot.

We scurried (that's too energetic a word, the onset of evening had done little to cool the heat) up the side of the Capitoline Hill, where once more a guard leisurely closed the bronze doors to the courtyard of the Museo di Campidoglio, just in time to deny us a peek at the fragments from the colossal statue of himself that Constantine had erected in front of the Colosseum. Like-wise the 'secret' doorway that leads to the back of that breezy outdoor cafe at the top of the stupendous monument to King Victor Emmanuel I (bet you didn't know that was there!) was chained as well.


On to the Pantheon, which had just closed, then Piazza Novona (well you can't close that) and the Campo di Fiore as well. It was time for dinner. One of the fascinating things about Rome is that, more than built on top of, it has through the centuries been built into the vestiges of the ancient city. Like the Piazza Novona, who's buildings incorperate the ruins of a Roman racetrack, the Restorante Grotte Del Teatro Di Pompeo, via F. Palasciano, 96 (on the tiny Piazza de Teatro di Pompeo) is constructed into the remains of the ancient Theatre Of Pompey. The Roman Senate was temporally meeting here on March 15, 44 BC, when Julius Caesar was set upon by his assassins as he left the theatre. It's extraordinary to dine steps away from, if not the very spot, where Caesar was stabbed to death by his enemies (and friends) from the Senate over two millennia ago. Also steps away from the mediocre eateries lining the tourist-packed Campo Fiore, here you'll usually find yourself dining (for the most part) in the company of Romans. Eat like they do, and stick to straight-forward Roman specialties like 'Bucatini alla Amatriciana' (spicy tomato ragu with pancetta), grilled fish and the inexpensive (7€) 'Castelli Romani' house white wine, and you'll be more than pleased with your bill as well as your meal.

Bill 'loading into' Rome's Circolo Degli Artisti. We travel light (note the ancient Roman aqueduct at the rear of the venue).

The next day we headed over to Circolo Degli Artisti (via Casilina Vecchia 42; Also located outside Rome's walls, the Circolo is in the neighborhood of rock journalist Roberto Calabro. Of course we ran into him as he was taking a stroll. He handed us a card announcing his recently published book 'Eighties Colors', which documents the Italian neo-psychedelic scene of the 1980's. We're in it. Sponsored by the re-branded Italian Communist Party, that night's show was sweaty, packed and a successful start to our Fleshtones Summer Mini-Festival of Fun.

a transient visitor: AereoPark 'la Donzelletta'

Retorno a Le Marche


I've got a lot of nice things to say about this hill town overlooking the Adriatic Sea, but since we didn't go into Reconati this time I won't say it here. The festival was a modest country affair at the quirky AereoPark la Donzelletta, a grassy flying club within sight of the massive complex that houses the shrine to Our Lady Of Loretto.
There were odd old airplanes and an aviatrix who serves as a 'mother' to clutches of goslings. Waddling after her where ever she goes, she eventually teaches them to fly after her 'ultra-light' aircraft. That night's show was modest as well -in attendance. Too bad, the setting was memorable, the night lots of fun and the adjacent 'Osteria la Donzelletta' -where we dined on the excellent dishes of Le Marche like 'tagliatelle al ragu' Marchigiano, 'pappardelle al Cinghiale' and 'chitarrine Carciofi e noci' -was great.

One Of My Least Favorite Ways To Feel

45 minutes in a stifling hotel room served as a prelude to an over-night drive back to Rome's Ciampoine Airport to catch our early morning flight to Charleroi, Belgium. Pinned upright in the van, my head repeatedly jerked forward as I struggled to keep awake for fear the driver would nod out on the high-speed 'Autostrada'. Understandably drowsy, he repeatedly slowed the van to a crawl as passing Italian motorists blared their horns in displeasure. It was well past dawn when we arrived at the airport where we joined the first of many disorderly queues for our super no-frills flight on RyanAir -the queue-lovers airline. Eventually were funneled into yet another queue amid the drilling, jack-hammering and high-speed cutting of steel in the construction zone that was our boarding pen. Well, I'll quit complaining because flying RyanAir is a bargain.

From Charleroi Airport it's a short drive (this is Belgium) to Leige, 'capital' of Wallonie, the country's French-speaking half. Funneled into a narrow, strategic valley of the Meuse, this pleasant city has gotten in the way of the Germans more than once. More happily, Liege's name has become attached to various examples of pleasurable eating: cafe leigeois, coupe leigeois and so on. I was a bit disappointed by the treacle-like 'vrai sirop de Leige', which turned out to be truly nothing more than boiled-down fruit juice.

'Le vrai sirop de Liege' not withstanding, we were in town to play the yearly 'Festival Les Ardentes' ( Among the dozens of acts performing that day would be Nada Surf (I had been assistant engineer on one of their early recording sessions at Northside's Coyote Studio -before it was obliterated in the hipster tsunami that's overwhelmed that neighborhood) and Heavy Trash (whose Mat Verti-ray operates the studio where we now record with Ivan Julian -small world), a veritable "Brooklyn reunion" as Streng remarked. Various stages, dressing rooms and lounges were partitioned off in a stifling hot (I'm going to over-use that adjective a lot by necessity) hanger that was large enough to accommodate a squadron of Zeppelins. We all received meal tickets for use in the festival cafeteria after another sweaty set. I had my eyes on a well-earned grilled entrecote, served with either 'sauce bearnaise' or 'au poivre vert'. The canteen only had a scrap of steak left, so the cook obligingly compensated me with a massive 'boullette de Liege' (the Swedes should see such a meatball!), accompanied by what they insisted on calling 'french' fries. We were dining in the garden when the sky above darkened and a wicked wind laden with hot, dry dust kicked up. The threatening thunderstorm never hit the festival site, but must have blown up a transformer somewhere, knocking out all the power in the massive complex during Nada Surf's set. They gamely ended their show with chants and percussion -a gambit that The Fleshtones naturally approved of.

Equipped with its own generators, the outage did not affect the main outdoor stage, where headliner Charlotte Gainsbourg would close the night. Lazy as I am about such things, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to see such a famous star (and daughter of important artists Jane Berkin and Serge Gainsbourg). Looking very Patti Smith-like, Charlotte delivered a very breezy, un-Patti-like set. She was not above leaning on her old man's repertoire for what would be her closing (and best) number 'Couleur Café'. There was no encore.
Sunday is market day in Liege and the next morning shoppers crowded the stalls that lined the quays along the Meuse for miles. We had no time to browse -our driver was due back in Turnout by 11AM. Our old friends The A-Bones would be waiting at the hotel there for a lift to the Sjock Festival.

The A-Bones On Tour!: Miriam Linna, Billy Miller and Bruce Bennett (Marcus the Carcass -partial view).

Sjock! Sjock! Sjock!

Belgians are officially bilingual: French and English, or Flemish and English. The country's ethnic mix has increasingly curdled along linguistic lines. Everywhere, homes displayed yellow banners bearing the rampant black lion of Flanders as we drove to the Sjock Festival ( Sjock is one of Europe's longest running R&R festivals. There's music, camping and lot's of Belgian beer. Everyone has a great time. We got to hang out with Belgian agent Peter Verstraelen and other old friends like The A-Bones, who we invited to join us on stage for an extremely improvised rendition of The Strangelove's 'Cara-Lin'. In between performances band members frequented the cabin-like clubhouse of The Gild of St. Ambrosius (founded 1711) where we could chow down and redeem gaming 'chips' for cold rations of 'Primus' beer.

photo: Flemish Gild; St. Ambrosius Gildenkamer -Sjock Festival's field HQ, 2010.

Driving back to our hotel in Turnout that night, my appetite was piqued by several late-night 'doner kebap' joints not more than a block and a half walk from where we were staying. Strolling briskly back to the most promising looking shop from the hotel, I ordered a sandwich, which the counterman slathered with white sauce. I have a profound disgust of mayonnaise -and this is mayo-happy Belgium, but realized it was only yoghourt sauce -spread from a huge plastic jar which probably had been sitting, unrefrigerated, on the counter all day. It was now about 2AM. Filled by my kebap and a feeling of well-being, I walked back to the hotel. It wasn't there. I wandered the twisting streets of the city's old quarter, which now seemed vastly more extensive than I had originally assumed. I found a bus stop, where I couldn't quite make myself understood to a driver. I had disregarded my own rule about always carrying a card from our hotel. It seemed every hotel in Flanders was named something like 'Corsendonk'. Boy, no more quips about learning Flemish now. Next to the stop there was a park where I discovered that Turnout had a rather impressive brick castle in the middle of a wide pool-like moat, next to which was a bench. I sat down to ponder the castle -and my next move. It began to rain. As I considered my options I noticed an open pub. It's floors were strewn with several inches of sand in celebration of some saint's day, or perhaps it was a 'beach' theme weekend. The staff commented on the difficulty of removing all that sand every year, then happily pointed me to my hotel. It was right around the corner. I got back to my stifling room in time to lay atop my bed for a few hours. Then along with performer 'Big Sandy', we all piled into an even hotter, airless mini-van for what we hoped would be a 90 minute drive to Brussels Airport. Despite the morning rush-hour traffic and my oncoming gastrointestinal attack we made it to the airport. There, due to over-booking, the kindness of the Delta check-in agent (and Streng's elite 'Silver' Skymiles status) we Fleshtones were booted up to the unfamiliar comforts of business class for our flight home.(see in-flight service: DL 141:
-Peter Zaremba