By the rivers of my memory…


Glen Campbell sits on the edge of a pool table in his Malibu home, a lot of activity buzzing around him, cameras and lights being reset in a break from filming interviews to be used for promotion of his upcoming “Ghost On the Canvas” album. Someone in the room asks him about, “Uncle Boo,” the first song he ever learned to play back in his Arkansas childhood. Campbell strums the basic chord pattern, stops to tune up the low E string, goes back to strumming, then pauses for a second, seemingly lost in thought. Then he casts his gaze to the fretboard and sort of aimlessly starts noodling around and then…. peels off a blistering run of jazz licks as if it’s nothing. He pauses, thinking a comment aimed at a lighting guy was meant for him, and then resumes, fashioning a set of complex chords. Again, nothing to it. See for yourself. I shot a short video on my phone as it happened, shared below.

This is the most lucid, the most focused, the most clear-headed he is this day. It’s April 14, 2011, and it’s a month or so before the public will learn that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease via an announcement in conjunction with the album release and related tour plans. I’d been told, though.

I’d been hired to do the interviews with him this day, to get him to talk about the movingly personal album, essentially a look at his life told through songs that producer Julian Raymond wrote, the words drawn from many conversations with Campbell, plus a few written by others, including Paul Westerberg’s touching title song. With that as the vehicle, we were also to explore the remarkable contours of his life from its dirt-poor start through stardom and scandal, peaking when he was the countrypolitan king of radio and TV in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, through his fall into drugs and drink, mugshots and mockery, and then his glorious renewal with the love and support of his wife Kim and his kids, several of whom now made up the core of his touring band.

It didn’t work out the way we’d all hoped. Memories eluded him, names and even just simple words were locked in his brain, and he could not access them. He’d tell an anecdote — Ray Charles’ appearance on the hit CBS-TV variety show “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, clearly a favorite — with boyish glee, eyes a-sparkle. Fifteen minutes later, he’d tell it again. Ditto for talking about how John Wayne took him under his wing and cultivated the actor in him when they co-starred in the original “True Grit” movie. He’d make a little joke or quip, and make it again. And again. And again. Even with Raymond next to him some of the time to help draw out stories, things they’d talked about in the course of making the album, the results were negligible. I’m not sure how much footage was shot that day, but only a tiny amount made it into the EPK. And none of the transcript was usable for the bio I was asked to write to be sent out to press with the album, so instead I wrote an essay with no quotes from its subject.

But someone suggested that having a guitar in hand might center him, ground him, and it did. The change was immediate and dramatic. It didn’t help the interview, but here, now was the Arkansas kid, the barnstorming hotshot playing southwest dives, the L.A. studio cat who Sinatra told to get a haircut (but didn’t fire) and who Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and many others counted on as a key player in the famed Wrecking Crew. Here was the guy who inspired Jimmy Webb to his greatest achievements as a songwriter in a pen-and-voice partnership that dominated its era with songs that transcend the years — “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” just to start. Here was the effortlessly appealing, telegenic good guy who somehow not only found comfort alongside the intellectual, edgy satire of the Smothers Brothers but was given charge of the summer placeholder for their groundbreaking franchise and then his own spin-off show.

This was Glen Campbell. And this was Glen Campbell when he stood in the kitchen later, talking with his wife and a couple of his kids, conferring with Raymond and others who had helped make the album. Yes, he was still at times lost, even in his own house. But he was eager for the company, genial to a fault, and with his family so clearly surrounded by love, so readily, joyously returning it.

And this is the Glen Campbell that people who saw his farewell tour shows will remember, a man failing and lost in some ways, but still finding sublime heights in song and in his phenomenal playing, finding himself there. This is the Glen Campbell seen in the film “I’ll Be Me,” which chronicles that tour and the increasing challenges faced by him and his family as the disease took more and more of him away. A lot has been said about how brave Kim and the kids were to share this, to be so open about something so painful and personal, about what a great service they did with the honesty and openness. It was all that. But that very bravery allowed Campbell to be surrounded by the love of his family, and his many fans, in his last years.

For all the words he sang over his singular career, ideas and emotions given flight in song, none more got to the core of him than the chorus of what for me was the centerpiece of “Ghost On the Canvas,” one of the songs that Raymond wrote from Campbell’s thoughts, “A Better Place.”

I’ve tried and I have failed Lord

I’ve won and I have lost

I’ve lived and I have loved Lord

Sometimes at such a cost

One thing I know

The world’s been good for me

A better place awaits

You’ll see

Harry Taussig and Max Ochs: Together Again, For the First Time



By Steve Hochman

In 1967, acoustic guitarists Max Ochs and Harry Taussig were each featured on “Contemporary Guitar,” an album sampler-of-sorts put out by John Fahey’s Takoma Records label to spotlight some of those in what was termed the “American primitive” form. Also featuring tracks from Robbie Basho, Mississippi blues veteran Bukka White and Fahey himself.

Last night, fifty years later, the two shared a stage for the first time for a concert at the fine new Zebulon club alongside the Los Angeles River in the area known as Frogtown. The occasion was the release of “The Music of Harry Taussig & Max Ochs” on devoted fan Josh Rosenthal’s Tompkins Square label, featuring five new recordings by the former and three by the latter, commemorating that Takoma album — they being the only contributors to it still living.

For that matter, as improbable as it may seem, this evening was the first time the two had ever met. But the rapport was natural, and their respective approaches complementary. Taussig observed that in the decades since that original album, they’ve veered in somewhat differing directions, Ochs devoted to raga-type explorations and the foundational blues repertoire (he played some Blind Willie Johnson and Charley Patton this night), Taussig taking increasing inspiration from such realms as Gregorian chant (one piece was an interpretation of such) and 20th/21st century classical music.

But there was still much overlap in their approaches, both clearly still part of the greater Fahey galaxy in which blues, old-timey, ragas, classical and sonic experiments blended together in highly personal combinations. Taking turns through the show, they passed a six-string back and forth. Ochs sang some, Taussig did not. Ochs played a few songs on another axe, Hawaiian style, with a bottleneck slide, while Taussig did about half of his on a resonant, buzzing twelve-string — which Ochs late in the set asked to borrow, re-tuning it to a different open chord than Taussig had been employing. When he handed it back, Taussig took it as a challenge and played a piece in that tuning.  (See videos of each taking a turn below.)

Obscure in legend as these two are, they brought in a nice crowd, appreciative and enthusiastic, young and, uh, not young alike. There was a brisk business for the vinyl and CDs of albums from each artist that Rosenthal has released, both archival and new. The two were going on to do three more shows in the Bay Area. And then… well, who knows? They live on different coasts (Ochs east, Taussig west). Now, though, having seen them play together, but separately (save for a closing duo with crowd sing-along on Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train”), it’s tantalizing to think what they might do if they made music together together.

As for Zebulon, it’s a wonderful addition to the L.A. music circuit, the concert room in back well thought out (co-owner Mia Doi Todd, a treasured artist herself, having taken the lead in that) and the cafe/bar in front a great meet-and-eat locale with a multi-cultural menu from Fred 62’s Fred Eric, matching the eclectic roster of acts being booked.

Charles Lloyd and Lucinda Williams: Masters and Marvels

By Steve Hochman (Photos by Peggy French)

“Let me ask you one question…”

Lucinda Williams wasn’t mincing any (of Bob Dylan’s) words when she sang “Masters of War” Friday night at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Charles Lloyd took it way beyond words. And the words may not exist to adequately describe the wonders of the band, the aptly named Marvels — Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on steel, Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums — that sax-and-flute man Lloyd has brought together in recent years and showcased this electrifying night, with Williams as special guest.

Questions, mysteries — the Big Questions and the Great Glorious Mysteries — are to be expected at a time that has seen a rare convergence of Passover and Holy Week. But a week with both MOAB and Easter is the opposite, a time of disconnects, of distressing questions. Of  confusion and despair.

But if you are looking for a way to connect it all, if not provide answers or make sense, you would be hard-pressed to do better than with the three-song sequence that concluded this, yes, glorious concert. “Masters of War,” with its simmering, bitter anger, provided a climactic peak to the show, Williams joining Lloyd and band for the latter portion of the set. And then, the encore brought the persistence of determination-driven faith and hard-won renewal with Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and, returning to Dylan, “I Shall Be Released.” There we had it, the Seder tale and Easter story encapsulated in a, pardon the expression, trinity of song.

What came prior to this righteous culmination Friday night was no less, well, masterful and marvelous. In the hour or so before Williams joined in, Lloyd and the Marvels expounded and expanded on the genre-less explorations captured on their 2016 album, “I Long to See You.” It, too, is all about connections, even more clearly and profoundly in this concert as they all have gone deeper into their considerable, collective talents. This is a group that was able to go from the skittery joy of Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’” and Lloyd’s loping mid-‘60s classic “Sombrero Sam”  to the somber solitude of Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood” and, profoundly, Brian Wilson’s “In My Room” with nary a blink.

“Ramblin’” had Frisell and Leisz, who have become a remarkably intuitive team via recent collaborations, pushing each other in intricately interweaving lines over the rumbling thunder propelled by Rogers and Harland — this is where the Allman Brothers meet Ornette, and it’s a pretty lively place. “In My Room” started and finished with Frisell’s deceptively casual impressionism, framing the group’s collective explorations of tune and textures, led by Lloyd’s signature love of the melody and insatiable curiosity for where he can take it. Or where it can take him. (As it has been through his storied, varied career, in which he has always ignored imposed lines between musical styles — a rare mix of high-minded musicality with a naturally populist streak, fully flowering in the current Marvels projects.)

Through it all on Friday, gentility sparkled with delight, power gained strength from peace — and vice versa. Lloyd, 79, has been part of and witness to a lot of great music in his nearly 60-year career. But often this night he stood aside, watching the other players with a look of unbridled joy.

That joy went off the scale when he brought Williams out, flipping the formula of a concert at the same locale last year in which Lloyd joined Williams and her band (which, that night, also included Frisell and Leisz) for the latter part of her concert. Williams told the crowd that they had bonded over their southern roots (he raised in Memphis, she in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas), but the bond is deeper than that in the music, bringing out much in each other. The gospel “Ain’t Nobody’s Fault But Mine” launched the pairing this night on a fine, fiery note.

But if the concluding three songs of the night gave us the power of anger and redemption, the song right before them made that possible — with the power of love. With a gorgeously wrenching version of “A Place in My Heart,” Williams’ nakedly, unashamedly sentimental waltz, she, Lloyd and the band fully revealed their hearts, and fully reached the hearts of the moved fans. There were tears.

And there’s your answer. There’s your connection. There’s your holy.


“Lovers” and Friends: Nels Cline Dazzles at Royce Hall

By Steve Hochman (photo by Phinn Sriployrung)

Nels Cline stepped onto the stage of UCLA’s Royce Hall on Saturday, sporting a sheepish grin, following the 18 musicians who would accompany him this night. The lanky musician took a seat, strapped on and plugged in a Gibson hollow-body, the red of its hull more or less matching the color of the shirt he wore under a natty black suit. Conductor Michael Leonhart, center-stage and back to the audience, raised his arms as if suspending time for a second and then….

Elegant was a word heard several times a couple of hours later as the crowd filed out to the lobby post-concert.

Dazzled would be the word to describe the look on most of the filing-out faces.

And it was an evening of both elegance and dazzle, Cline and crew showcasing most of the music from “Lovers,” the sprawling and ambitious album of his released by jazz legacy label Blue Note last year, a mix of standards, originals, film music, modernisms and choice obscurities alike for, as he put it in one of his few times chatting to the audience, “a Saturday night concert almost entirely made of ballads” from, as he put it later,  “a record about romance, sex, intimacy… the pulsation of life.” That, on the record, covers a pretty sweeping landscape, with interpretations of music from such seemingly disparate artists as Rogers and Hammerstein, Henry Mancini, jazz (and beyond) innovator Annette Peacock and even New York experimental rockers Sonic Youth. It was even more sweeping, yet of a clearly conceived piece, in this concert.

With Leonhart’s arrangements and Cline’s leadership taking on whole new layers of, well, life in this live presentation, it evoked on everything from Debussy to Hendrix, Messiaen to Mancini, Stravinsky to swing, all taking the road through Ellington and Evans (Gil and Bill). Cline’s own wide-ranging virtuosity nodded to Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, Gabor Szabo, John Abercrombie and countless other jazz guitar masters. One of the several trumpet solos taken by Leonart had a Chet Baker feel to it, very fitting to the romance theme.

For some, the “Lovers” album and this, one of just a handful of live presentations planned at this time, is a wonderful, if curious, side-trip from his role in Wilco, which has made him an international rock-guitar hero. Funny thing, though. For a good number of those at Royce this night, it’s quite possible that the Wilco gig is seen as the side-trip, even after 13 years now in that band. Heck, it could be that some barely know that he’s in that group at all, or at least not are particularly familiar with its music.

A lot of folks at this show go much further back with him — some to the days in the ‘70s when he was working at the Rhino Records store just down the road here in Westwood while trying to make inroads in his musical ventures, some back to high school and earlier. (This writer first saw his talents on full display in the spring of 1975 when we were both freshman at Occidental College and he did a performance leading a forcefully dynamic electric jazz-rock trio that had his twin brother Alex on drums.) Sure, he’s lived in New York for a while now, but he’s still a hometown boy to the family and friends at the core of this crowd.

And many of their images of him are in a more jazz context, and that mostly on the explorational front of the form — his part in the semi-acoustic group Quartet Music, or booking “new music” nights at the old Alligator Lounge (highlights including evenings of furious guitar shred duets with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, strings beaten with kitchen implements and such) and various ongoing projects including his slyly named Nels Cline Singers instrumental ensemble.

Cline was clearly moved and grateful for this homecoming reception. His parents both went to UCLA (he wore one of his father’s ties this night, he noted proudly). His brother now works there. He saw many, many concerts at Royce throughout his life.

“This is daunting and mind-blowing and overwhelming to me,” he said. “After all the wild concerts I’ve seen here, I never thought I’d be doing this. Certainly.”

The gathering on stage included compatriots from various phases and stages of his career: winds player Vinny Golia and Quartet Music violinist Jeff Gauthier among the L.A. contingent, harp adventurer Zeena Parkins, slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein, keyboardist Yuka C. Honda (formerly of the band Cibo Matto, and married to Cline) among the NYC presence, as well as Bay Area violinist Jenny Scheinman, another long-time collaborator. And of course, twin brother Alex was on drums and a variety of percussion instruments, up to and including wrapping paper, which he crinkled charmingly for one number. (On a, uh, related note, Alex’s new album, “Ocean of Vows,” with a few of these same musicians in his Flower Garland Orchestra, is another wondrous release.)

Sometimes the music took on all the colorations of the full ensemble, other times focused on the smaller jazz combo core, with double-bassist Devin Hoff providing propulsive force. The ballads, the Rogers and Hart classic “Glad to Be Unhappy,” the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II musing “Why Was I Born?” (arguably the most “traditional” jazz performance of the evening) and the David Mann/Bob Hilliard-written Sinatra favorite “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” (the latter not on Cline’s album) among them, all sported ebbing and flowing orchestral dynamics and rich tonal colorations that mined and illuminated the deepest emotions of the songs, the muted sorrows and sparkling joys in equal measures. Not that it was all serious business. There was an engaging casualness at times, including a laugh-bringing bit when an audience member had to remind him to plug in his guitar as he was about to start one tune.

Arguably, though, it was the “almost” moments that were most arresting. “You Noticed,” one of several Cline originals, was a powerful tangent, with his soaring, elastic, electronically processed Fender JazzMaster lines calling to mind Norwegian guitarist-composer Terje Rypdal, a long-time Cline hero who has forged compelling intersections of jazz, rock and modern orchestral music. A medley of themes from scores to the movies “The Night Porter” and “Max, Mon Amour” (Cline is a big Charlotte Rampling fan) were modern classical/big-band at its daring best, with Cline engaging in some of the banging and scraping on the strings that have been part of his repertoire for ages, Parkins matching the approach on her harp. But then they all were also  able to bring out those same sensibilities and richnesses in an exploration of and expansion on a Mancini passage from the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” score, “The Search for the Cat,” ostensibly more traditional movie music.

And while the massive, even raucous portions were breathtaking, the most profound passage was also the quietest. In the middle of a pairing of two Peacock compositions, “So Hard it Hurts” and “Touching,” the orchestra built to a massive, dense crescendo and then, suddenly, stopped. The sounds receded, leaving only an almost-subliminal high sustained note of quasi-feedback from Cline’s guitar and a steady, complementary note from a metal bowl rubbed steadily with a cloth-wrapped dowel by his brother standing at the back. Save for Alex’s steady circling of the bowl, utter stillness took the hall. Then, after a minute of this powerful hush, bit by bit the other musicians picked up the harmonics — vibes player Brad Dutz using a bow on one of his instrument’s bars, then some strings, then the winds, then brass…. and the breath that just before had been taken, now returned, renewed.

Elegantly dazzling.




About 10 years ago, Mary started getting up early, 5 a.m. or so. It was no surprise that her sleep patterns were off. Nearly a decade of breast cancer treatment, what with chemo, various other drugs and unfathomable emotional/psychological stresses, can do that. Just being the partner of someone undergoing that had played havoc with my sleep patterns — I’d gone through occasional stretches of insomnia, sometimes weeks on end. So her atypical early-to-rise state was not a shock.

Then one morning a week or two later, as I was waking a couple of hours after she’d gotten up, she returned to the bedroom, plunked down a stack of paper on the bed and said, “So, I’ve written a novel.”

I believe that my reaction was a suitably erudite, “Wha?? Gaa?? Faa??”

Well, that’s what she was doing with her pre-dawn hours. She wrote a novel. Just like that. In a week or two. I was impressed and agog. And a teeny bit peeved — I’d started a novel a couple of years before that and had made only a little headway. (And here, a decade later, it is still a work-in-progress at best.) She simply knocked one out. Just like that. Easy-peasy.

“Figures of Echo,” it said on the title page. I started to read it. And it was…. good! Really good! A young adult/pre-teen tale, but one of sophistication and imagination, full of playful spirit and true emotions. In other words: It was Mary. The main character, an 11-year-old girl, was very Mary — a voracious intellect, insatiable curiosity, quick wit and easy-flowing humor and affection, tempered by, but not hindered by, accompanying self-doubts and insecurities.

Echo lives with her dad over a Manhattan tavern (and quasi-restaurant) he runs. Her mom died a few years before, but a set of regular patrons make up their extended family, and overall things are pretty fine. Until….. well. No spoilers. It’s a sweet, fun, breezy read. The characters are fully formed. The situations and drama well-plotted and plausible. And, most importantly, it has Mary’s voice in every phrase.

After a few attempts to shop it around to publishers, she wound up putting it out herself via Lulu, with copyediting by niece Bianca and a fine cover design by friend Brigid. It won the DIY Book Festival’s nod as Best Teenage Novel of 2007.

Not long after it was bought by Lifetime for a TV movie. They gave it to a screenwriter, who changed key elements of the plot, changed key things about the main characters, made up a perky/silly best friend for Echo and changed the title (“Custody,” ugh). And it was…. not good. Rob Morrow, James Denton and, as Echo, Kay Panabaker — all gave it their best in the lead roles. But, well, it was a Lifetime movie, so it was what you’d expect: dumbed-down and trite. But it aired, and for at least a few years was a regular part of the channel’s Father’s Day programming. And we had a nice viewing party with friends when it premiered in September 2007, Mary and Rick rushing home from the completion of their Plucky Survivors trip, a brand-spanking-new DVR allowing us to watch from the start though they arrived about half an hour late.

Mary wrote a lot. Her Los Angeles Times series about her cancer experiences touched and helped many others going through similar things. Her Frommer’s Guides brought insights and depth to New Orleans and, yeah, even Las Vegas. Her graduate work in theology and philosophy of religion were remarkably perceptive and illuminating — even if she was unable to complete her PhD work before she died, seven years ago today. Much of it is preserved on her web site,

But “Figures of Echo” may have been the writing of which she was most proud, rightfully. It’s a still-resounding echo of the remarkable person she was.

(This is not a sales pitch, but “Figures of Echo” is great reading for girls around the age of the title character. And for adults too. And any proceeds from it will be donated to PinkAid and Pink Fund, two wonderful organizations giving financial aid to women-in-need dealing with breast cancer. “Echo” can be purchased via or Amazon.)


Christmas Comes But Twice a Year



Ten years ago today, as we were wrapping up a visit to Serbia and Montenegro, we stepped onto a bus in Belgrade to go to a town we’d never heard of at the invitation of a family we had only met in passing to share in their celebration of Serbian Orthodox Christmas. It proved one of the great adventures of my life and an experience of such love and generosity on the part of these then-strangers, who now remain dear friends. Mary wrote a vivid account of that wild time shortly after, which I share again here to mark the anniversary of that, with much love to the wonderful Zovko family.

By Mary Herczog

January, 2007

To set the scene, Serbia celebrates Orthodox Christmas on January 7. Since much would be closed that day, we half-joked that perhaps we would meet some local who would invite us over to participate in their family holiday. Failing in that (that scheme worked out not at all for Estonia’s St. John’s Eve), we figured we would celebrate a traditional Jewish Orthodox Christmas, to wit, Chinese food and a movie. (There were several playing, undubbed, in Belgrade that we wanted to see.) 

Now, on the flight from Heathrow to Belgrade, I end up in a very long wait for the airplane bathroom and to pass the time, chatted with the woman waiting behind me. S is from Serbia, but she and her husband Z have lived in New Jersey for 12 years. She gave me their cell phone numbers, urging me to call them should we have any problems or need anything at all. After baggage claim, she had Z help us get a cab, and then she said “Come stay with us! We live about 90 kilometers away, and my mother in law has a big house!” Sure enough, Mom was nodding her head in agreement. Since we weren’t sure this was for real, since we had a shortish stay in Belgrade, since we didn’t know a thing about their town, and since we had, you know, just met them five minutes ago, we simply said thank you, and didn’t really think about it again. That’s because we were too dumb to notice that the very thing that we wanted to have happened happened, and not five minutes into our trip. 

Days pass, and we travel to Montenegro and back. It’s now Christmas Eve day. The night before, we went to a very large Orthodox church so that Steve could tape the services (his new passion; it’s like a free concert, twice a day), but despite being told by several different people that services were at 7pm, they weren’t held at all. So we returned for the 9am, and then decided to go to the nearby open air market, full of little old ladies selling ripe homemade cheese and other sights our trusty guidebook assured us was “the real Belgrade.” But when the walk trusty guidebook map claimed was but three blocks turned into eight, we stopped at a corner to get our bearings. Only to have a young man stop next to us and offer his help in perfect English. Turns out he was headed to the market too, and offered to take us there. 

V spent some years working as a broker, including a stint in London, but recently turned his back on the long hours and soulless work for some months spent “reading Russian novels” and living at home with his doting parents. We asked him about Orthodox Christmas and he insisted on taking us to Sveta Sava, the largest church in Belgrade, and asking the first priest he could find about services that evening. Throughout, he gave a running tour commentary on Belgrade, pointing out historical buildings, bombing sites and the like. He told us about the bombing (“since the power was out, my friends and I had to barbeque all the meat in the fridge, which is what we did every night, have barbeques and watch the bombs like they were fireworks. And that was my war.”). Then he took us out for coffee. While drinking, I asked him if we could use his cell phone to call S and assure her we were okay, and that we hadn’t called because we hadn’t needed her help, but thank you for the offer. I felt a little foolish calling–she had probably forgotten about us–but she had been so insistent about wanting to hear from us regularly. 

“WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?” exclaimed a delighted S. “Now, we want you to come over tomorrow to spend Christmas with us.” Er–really? Why, yes. But we have to fly back to Belgrade the next morning. No problem! They are on the same flight! They can drive us back! Then it turns out their flight was actually the day after ours, but no problem; just come out tonight, and spend the night. Well…okay. V, it turns out, is from that same area of the country and pronounced it well worth seeing, and so walked us to the bus station to get tickets, but not before we took a trip to the open air market that started this whole serendipitous adventure. Barrels of soft cheese, some feta-like, some more like creamy combination of creme fraiche and butter, various smoked and dried and cured animal parts, glass jars full of the local pepper puree, and more more more. Heavenly smelling, we wished we weren’t pressed for time so we could sample it all. 

But pressed we were–after all, we had to buy presents for our hosts (local candy, wine, a Serbian translation of “The Time Traveler’s Wife” because I liked it) and a few hours later, we were on a bus hurtling through the dark to who knows where. Seriously. Not sure where it was. Somewhere 120 slightly winding kilometers outside of Belgrade, in the countryside. Chacak, the town is called, and Z picked us up and took us to the sparklingly-decorated small flat he and S maintain, only to then tell us that his mom was expecting us, with a dinner feast ready to go (despite it being well after 10pm). Off we go to her place, to meet her and their two kids. And out comes the food. Dish after dish of food. It seems Serbians “fast” for some days before Christmas, and by “fast” they mean “avoid all animal byproducts except fish, but otherwise, stuff yourself.” And so we ate delicious smoked whole river fish, some kind of fatty smoked fish (smoked by them in their own smokehouse out back–wood smoke smell was everywhere out here in the country) that melted into a pure strong taste in our mouth, plus cabbage salad and an array of fancy desserts, all of which were, to our shock, homemade. Actually, everything was homemade, they said. S and Z were constantly amused by the US emphasis on “organic,” because they come from a place where everyone grows their own veggies and meat and so forth, and everyone makes their own nearly everything. (Witness V buying items at the market for his family’s Christmas dinner from the country people/farmers who sell their wares at the market.) We stop down first for a holiday custom; Z comes in saying “Merry Christmas!” three times, carrying branches of dead leaves, and each time his mother throws seeds, grains and coins at him for luck. Mom, by the way, waits on us at dinner and when we try to get her to sit down, Z shrugs it off. “No, don’t worry about it.” It’s just the way things are done. 

imgp0529By now it’s 11pm and continuing the theme of what will be our 36 hour excellent adventure, ie, a dizzying array of unexpected excellent events about which we have not been consulted, we are now told we are going to see S’s sister perform. Because she’s a big Serbian rock star–well, someone has to be–and she’s doing a solo show in town. Typical smoky bar, tight talented band, covers during the set rather than orignials, but he’s got a good strong voice and a feel for the lyrics that indicates she knows what she’s singing, rather than having just learned it phonetically. From there, we go to church, because, where else?

Orthodox Christmas celebrations start at midnight and go until 2am, and feature a big bonfire outside the church where, earlier in the day, everyone trooped around in procession for awhile, burning the elaborate arranges of pungent dead leaves and branches we had seen for sale all over Belgrade. (The symbolism is unclear. It may be having to do with the end of death as brought about by the birth of Christ.) The church was crammed to the seams, and the shelves that held prayer candles were so full one couldn’t stick another candle into the sand that held the tapers upright, because it was covered rock hard with melted candle wax. We basked in the smoke and the warmth and wondered about it all. 

So to bed around 3am, and in the morning we are greeted with a breakfast of fresh salami, local thin sliced ham (sort of like Spanish jambon), a Serbian staple of a kind of shredded roast pork that looks like tobacco, some of that feta-like cheese and the cream/butter combo which we are told is “serbian caviar” and another national dish. It gets mixed with excellent homemade cornmeal mush. There is also the red pepper spread, handmade by Z’s mother. There is more, but I think I forgot a few things. We see there is snow outside–remember, pitch black when we arrive–and that the town is a nice little hodge podge of late 1800’s architecture and much newer buildings. Z’s family used to raise hogs out back, so this is also partly rural/argriculture country. We are told that on this day one no longer says “Merry Christmas!” but instead a Serbian phrase meaning “Christ is born!” to which one responds with a phrase that basically says “Got that right.” (Actually, it translates as “Indeed, he IS born.”) We add this to our repertoire of six Serbian phrases. (Anyone we speak these to has the same reaction; surprise, pleasure, and amusement.) 


Around 11am, Z’s oldest friend and his wife arrive. The friend knows all about local history and so the six adults, plus the two kids, are going to drive around the area, looking at monasteries, and then we will come back and have a feast. Again, we’ve not been consulted about any plans, but as it happens, driving around looking at monasteries and then feasting is exactly how we wanted to spend our day. We are mighty impressed by their prescience. When we meet the whole roasted pig that will be the center of the feast, we are even happier. (This is the traditional dish for Serbian Christmas, and Z explained that while they have often roasted their own pig, it’s a local speciality; their area supplies many of the pigs for the rest of the country. So they just bought one this year.) 


Right, so into the minivan and off we go. We drive past horse-driven carts and other quaint things. Hey, where are we going? Well, we WERE going to several local monasteries, but they decided to take us to the two oldest and most famous ones in Serbia. Cool! Are they far? Farther that the local ones, but pretty close. Okay! So we chat–well, the personable and bright kids jabber with Steve, who is adorable with them, and I talk with Z and his friend, who understands some English and speaks less (sadly, because he is lovely and so very interesting), so there is translating going on. He in turn points out various historical spots along the route. Z explains about the war, about local politics, why he went to America, and more. As we drive. About 90 minutes into the drive, they ask us if we want some borak, which is a flakey savory pastry of layers of filo and either cheese or meat. Sure, but where are we…?–and a delicious smell fills the car, as we are presented with fresh, hot, homemade borak on a silver platter. I thought for sure they were whipping it up in the back seat, but no, Z’s friend’s mom made it, lest we get peckish on the drive. (Serbians, you may have gathered, like to eat. A lot. This is one of their many delightful qualities.) She has also ruined us for this Serbian snack, because hers was by far the best we have eaten and never again will we be satisfied by anything less. 

And we are driving through steep mountains, alternating snow and green vistas, and there are ruined castles and gushing rivers, and I ask Z how close we are, and he says not far, and so another hour passes. We learn we are about 10 miles from Kosovo and that “bullet proof vests are under your seat.” (Kidding, but we weren’t going there anyway. Z, who used to be in the Army, says its the worst place he’s ever been and that was before the war. Also, we didn’t have our passports.) Z explains that the area we were in was now about 80% Muslim (and Albanian) in contrast to the 85% Orthodox makeup of the rest of Serbia. We hit a chaotic dusty dirty small city, in the throes of market day, mostly Islamic, and so where there had been in the places we had driven through earlier in the day the domes of Orthodox churches were now the spires of mosques. They get lost, and lost some more, and we twist through neighborhoods full of shacks, tiny cobbly streets, poverty and dirt and confusion and life and energy, a way of living and economic status totally unexpected in what is supposed to be First World Europe. I can’t do it justice but at some point I thought this was the most exotic place we had ever been. Indonesia, Thailand, Morrocco, Peru–you expect it to be different, but not here, not quite like this, not so radically, not so close to relatively cosmopolitan Belgrade, with its Belle Epoque architecture, internet connections and high fashion stores. It was waking up on the moon. 

And we are still driving, but now uphill in the right direction, and we finally land at Serbia’s second oldest monastery, built roughly 1100 or 1200. The church interior is covered with glowing near-pastel fresco (“Art historians agree this are the best in the world!” said a happy monk, and I thought “Well, Leonardo’s Last Supper is considered rather highly, but never mind.”), which had been left open to the elements for centuries after the place was bombed and the roof destroyed by the Turks back in 15-whatever. It was restored in 1929, and the paintings, of the Annuciation, of various Saints, of a Crucifixion as powerful as a punch, are remarkable works of art, graceful and deeply moving. We strolled around the melted-snowy grounds before heading to the gift shop so that Steve could continue to look for CD’s of Orthodox music, and every member of our party could turn to me and say “Here, Mary, this is for you” and hand me some pretty little booklet about the place, or a map to Belgrade monasteries or some other gift. This on top of the drive, the borak, the room for the night, the pig yet to come. “Why??” I said to Steve, “this generosity, where is it coming from?” and we still don’t know. 

From there, we retrace our steps and Z says we are going to the oldest Serbian monastary on our way home. But we’ve come a long way, and it’s getting dark. But the Plan Is Not To Be Denied, and also it’s not far. Which totally isn’t true, because it’s hours later before we crawl our way up the even steeper, very narrow and thrillingly icy road through the rapidly fading light. It’s quixotic, as we will spend nearly two hours for what will prove a fifteen minute visit. We crunch through snow in the twilight to enter the towering Gothic church (circa 1090), which is dark but for some flickering candles and one or two light bulbs. A monk tells us about various uncorrupted saintly bodies enscounced within, including one he claims is fresh as a daisy despite being roughly 800 years old, and that he is displayed–and touched!–every Sunday. Which it is. But despite my pleas of calender consistency,we missed the viewing and there will not be a second one. At one point, it’s service time, and while we MUST go (it’s dark now, and the road is icy and narrow), we stop to hear the first bit, in the stone grand nave of the church, lit only by a chandelier of candles, amid billowing black robes of priests flung deep into their devotions, our breath steaming in front of us and then the deep tolling of the bells. It was 45 seconds of pure, visceral, crackling sensory ecstasy and it made every bit of effort to get there worthwhile. 

imgp0540And so back down the mountain we go, as Z says home is only about 60 miles away. By now, you’d think I’d learn. Time passes. More time passes. Speaking of which, the last bus to Belgrade–a nearly three hour ride–leaves at 8pm, and we are coming up on 6pm, and by now we’ve assumed we aren’t staying for dinner. Oh, yes, we are, they are not to be denied, and, frankly, we want pig! So Z and his friend consult and it’s concluded that we can take a cab back to Belgrade for not much more than two bus tickets, and a somewhat faster ride. We have to leave for our flight around 7am (and we need some sleep as we are going the next day to hang out with old friends in London, and we don’t want to be all nodding off, sleep deprived for our precious evening together), but we do the math and figure that if we leave at, say, 9pm in the cab, that gets us to Belgrade with enough time to pack up and the other things we have to do and still get a reasonable night’s sleep.

Time passes. Still driving. We eventually get back to Chacak, and we, naturally, have to drop off the friends first, as they are late for their Christmas dinner, and then we get back to Z’s mom’s house, and to meet some more relatives, and also, pig! v Oh, delectable, and there was homemade chicken soup, and two kinds of salad, and all the other things, the cheeses and the meats and the pepper spread, and it turns out that Z’s mom has worked as a chef. No kidding. We visit with other family members, and time passes, and we pack up, and the kids, who have been really good all day, descend into that constant squabbling that is what kids do when they are tired, and we think it’s about time to call that cab, but Z is missing and we can’t leave without saying goodbye, and the clock ticks, and more time passes, and Z finally appears and we say “About that cab?” and he and S say “We are going to take you to our house, and you will get it there.” Ours is not to reason why about anything, and so we get in the car, and S says “I hope you don’t mind, but I have this friend, and her daughter is in a wheelchair, but she makes these icons, and she wanted to meet you and give you a present. So if it’s okay, we can stop there on the way to our flat?” What are we going to say? 

It seems the friend is a rather well known local journalist, and she lives with her tween age daughter and older girl, who is 22 but looks 14, and has severe cerebral palsy, of the sort that leaves her with only minimal control of her left hand and nothing else. We are greeted with cake and coffee, and we resign ourselves to what clearly will not be a quick “how d’ya do? Gotta go” visit. At some point I murmer to Steve “Just go with it,” and he agrees. 

Which is more than okay, because we learn this story; Journalist Mom, who does religion reports for the national news, took her daughter (pause here to show us a photo album of the daughter with various Serbian celebrities) to meet the Serbian Orthodox Patriach (widely regarded as a living saint; pause here to show us a TV program Mom produced on him), and right afterward, the girl, who cannot dress nor feed herself, began working with seeds, rice and paint to produce icons. It’s a miracle! They all exclaimed. Well, all right, we said…and then they produced several examples. And it’s…gallery worthy outsider art, I mean, it’s flat-out incredible. “Primative”, sure, but it’s quality art even without the story, and with the story, it’s unbelievable. There is at least one piece which depicts the girl herself, in her wheelchair, dreaming this all up. It should immediately go in a museum. They take us into her bedroom, and demonstrate the impossible process; her sister sets up her tools and puts the brush into her hand, and then the girl heartbreakingly slowly and laboriously places glue on the page, and puts, one at an agonizing time, a grain of rice (or seed or whatever) in place. Over and over, for hours and hours and hours. It’s flabberghasting. And a true example of the kind of mystic ecstasy the devotional act of icon-producing is supposed to be. 

So as we are processing this, Mom brings out a frame and says “We want you to have this.” Now, I had been hoping to buy a nice Mary icon on our trip but I never found one I liked. What did she hand me? Oh, you know. And it’s stunning. Again, folk art, but just what I would have chosen. Meanwhile, I add this; before we left, Dr. W, he of the normal tumor markers success, asks me to bring him a Serbian flag, so he can hang it in his office along with my photo, for his other patients, to show them what is possible, even with cancer mets. We kept saying during the trip “Must get the flag for Dr. W.” But we hadn’t. So what did Journalist Mom hand me next? Hours before we were about to leave the country? Why, isn’t that such a perfect little Serbian flag? At this point, I don’t know what to do, except tell the story to S, who translates to Journalist Mom, whereupon they both burst into tears and cross themselves repeatedly. What the hell–I join in. 

It turns out that they have not really ever thought about selling her art, which is hard to imagine, as we know at least two galleries in New Orleans that would take her stuff in a heartbeat, not to mention any number of friends who would buy it. So we started planning to help her out, and also to maybe do some stories about her once we get home. Speaking of which, it’s getting really rather late–two hour plus drive to Belgrade and packing and all the rest–but we have to listen to the other daughter play the piano (I asked; I thought she might get overlooked because of her sister a great deal) and also have the artist sign her work, which involves Mom first writing on the painting, and then getting ready to hand the pen to her daughter, but constantly getting distracted and walking away to show us something else. And then we are asked to participate in a traditional Christmas ritual (burning those dead aromatic leaves in a small bowl) and then there are the extended goodbyes. At this point, I really was thinking we weren’t ever, ever going to be allowed to leave. And I felt horribly guilty even thinking it. Because after all, this has been a day, a day of serendipity and adventure and sharing, and the only thing wrong, really, was that we were trying to do it all in a day. These lovely, gracious people, they wanted us to come out earlier, to stay awhile, for good reason, because they had so much to show us, to share with us, and we were too American to understand our great good fortune until it was nearly too late. 

But finally, we did leave, of course, full of exaltation and exhaustion in equal measure. We made it back to Belgrade a mere four hours later than we intended, but what’s a little no sleep compared to this. 

A couple of photos to follow. And Dr. W liked his flag very much.

Hristos se Rodi! Voistinu se Rodi!*


Baconwrap-up: 2016’s Tastiest Tunes


By Steve Hochman

The choice for the No. 1 album of 2016 was pretty much set on Jan. 8. It was set in stone two days later, when we learned that the maker of that album had died. We had no idea that there would be so much more loss to come, not just among our “stars,” but in our lives. Even those of us acutely aware that the Boomer generation — my generation — had lodged itself squarely inside the mortality zone were overwhelmed, uncomprehending of the toll it would take on our individual and collective psyches. We held on so tenaciously to our youth, cherishing our toys and our heroes alike as we aged sometimes-not-so-gracefully, that this all messed up our sense of self, and sense of perspective.

There were certainly far greater tragedies in the world this year than the deaths of some pop stars, even the most poetic and impactful of them. And yet the works of some of them can help us regain that perspective, both on the small and big scales, if we let them. David Bowie and Leonard Cohen come to mind in particular for each of their album-for-the-ages with which they left us. In that perspective is a reminder that while we honor the dead, we should exalt the living. And in 2016 artists from across generations, across cultures, across perspectives, stepped forward with works of vital spirit that define the year, not just the bad but also much good, every bit as much as the work of those who left us.

The One:

David Bowie, “Blackstar.”

Oh I’ll be free

Just like that bluebird

Oh I’ll be free

Ain’t that just like me.


The Next Nine:

Adia Victoria, “Beyond the Bloodhounds”

From my review on KPCC’s Take Two:

This is dark, probing stuff, as the song titles indicate (“And Then You Die” is another). But it’s vibrant and vivid, threaded with a sense of her fighting personal and cultural bonds — she was raised in a strict Seventh Day Adventist family and the album title comes from Harriet Jacobs’ autobiographical 1861 novel “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Comparisons are tough here. She cites early blues-jazz star Victoria Spivey, and there are hints of a southern Patti Smith here (the spoken climax of “Invisible Hand”), a folky Nina Simone. But those are fleeting images, giving way to an artist taking her own path. If one song even comes close to capturing the whole, it’s the dense, banjo-accented, swamp-Gothic climax of “Stuck in the South.” Victoria Spivey by way of Flannery O’Connor? Or just Adia Victoria.


Xenia Rubinos, “Black Terry Cat.”

My review on KPCC.

As the debate over just what, and who, is America only intensifies, there may be no sharper, more pointed, more witty, more forceful portrait than “Mexican Chef,” a new song by Brooklyn’s Xenia Rubinos. And more danceable.


Allen Toussaint, “American Tunes”

From my KPCC review:

As pointed out in the astute liner notes by Tom Piazza, a New Orleans music critic, novelist and one of the writers on the HBO just-after-the-flood drama “Treme,” on one hand Toussaint brings a New Orleans tinge, with its subtle funk and delightful flourishes, to such jazz classics as Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” and Evans’ “Waltz for Debby” (somewhat perversely played in 4/4 rather than waltz-time), while transforming such New Orleans standards as Prof. Longhair’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and Earl King’s “Big Chief” (best known from Longhair’s repertoire) into elegant etudes and concisely imaginative sonatas. 

The sequence unfolds like a vibrant novel or film. And at the end, Simon’s “American Tune” is epilogue. Here we get not just Toussaint’s piano, but finally his voice, too, conversational and eloquent with Simon’s portrayal of the complex cultural mix of our nation that brought about the music we’ve just heard, born of struggle and perseverance, of fears of dying and dreams of flying, of transitions and uncertainties, of destinations and destinies unknown. Toussaint brought it into his repertoire in the first few years after the flood, one of several New Orleans musicians who latched onto it as a song that expressed what they, and their city were experiencing as they fought to rebound and rebuild. Here, though, as many in New Orleans and beyond still mourn his loss, hearing him sing this caps this final album with a perfect measure of both celebration of a life of music and sadness at its ending. His life was a truly American tune. An American symphony.


Anderson.Paak, “Malibu”

From our year-end wrap-up on KQED’s The California Report.

Coverage of Anderson.Paak’s nomination for the Best New Artist Grammy this month often saw him called a rapper. But despite an association with Dr. Dre, his music more often than not isn’t rap. That’s abundantly clear not just on his bracing album “Malibu,” but in live performances including a delightful, playful NPR Tiny Desk Concert appearance, Paak on drums leading his sharp compact band the Free Nationals as they flow between soul and jazz and pop and rock, even surf, with grace and wit and a sense that anything is possible. EVERYTHING is possible. In what in many ways was a very tough year in the music world, a year filled with loss and sorrow, this is a positive note.


Shirley Collins, “Lodestar”

From my KPCC review:

There is much sadness in the album, and much death — the traditional “Death and the Lady,” for which she’s done a “Seventh Seal”-inspired video, explicitly so. And she closes with “The Silver Swan,” a 17th century madrigal by Orlando Gibbons, in which the titular bird “thus sung her first and last and sung no more.” But in her song notes accompanying the album, Collins thinks back to nights in the early ‘50s at home in Hastings around the piano, singing that song with her sister and their mother, the three collapsing in laughter at their vain attempts to get through the intricate parts. The version here is sparer, just her voice, a harmonium and a viola. But for the song’s twilight melancholy, you can almost hear that laughter still in her voice these decades later.


Zomba Prison Project, “I Will Not Stop Singing”

Second volume from producer Ian Brennan’s recordings of inmates in the unimaginably horrible conditions of Zomba Central Prison in Malawi. “60 Minutes” reported on it in depth:


Noura Mint Seymali, “Arbina”

From my BuzzBandsLA feature ahead of the Mauritanian artist’s Royce Hall show in March, which previewed several songs from this then-unreleased album:

Her music is a swirling modern presentation of ancient Moorish griot sounds, with her forceful, trilling vocals weaving in the interlocking curls of her ardine (a nine-stringed harp reserved specifically for women) and swirling electric guitar lines of her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, along with pulsating bass and drums. It’s also to some extent an attempt to present something that represents a good deal of the country — not an easy task.


Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison, “In Movement”

From my KPCC review:

Here, senses of space and atmospherics are key, Garrison’s subtle use of electronics and effects providing as much a signature to the trio sound as DeJohnette’s tuneful touch and Coltrane’s bright runs, at once wild and controlled. The interplay through a variety of tones and tempos, from the floating title piece to the stutter-funk pulse of “Two Jimmys,” is seamless, the three clearly mutually inspired. So here, more than 20 years after they first played together and more than 50 years since DeJohnette played with their dads, this trio feels like something new beginning, with wonderful possibilities in front of them.

Ruby Friedman Orchestra, “Gem”

From my KPCC review:

You don’t need to know Ruby Friedman’s life story to get a sense of who she is. Just hearing her, and better seeing her perform, tell enough. Her voice and manner are as bold and brash as her flame-red hair. But she’s telling you anyway, with “Fugue in L.A. Minor,” the opening song of her long-in-coming first album, “Gem.” Part unflinching biography, part unapologetic confessional, the song briefly accounts various things on her road to this point, overcoming alcohol, having a child and giving her up among them. And she asked God, she tells us, “What am I doing here?” His answer: “Keep singing, well you better!”

It’s quite the curtain-raiser, fitting as what follows has some theatrical punch, Vaudevillian in some spots, Brechtian in others. Well, really it’s Vaudeville-y and Brecht-y, not fully either, or any one thing at any time. Bluesy also applies. Jazzy maybe. But brassy, always. Ethel Waters with a pinch of Ethel Merman — via Dusty Springfield and maybe even some Patti Smith.


Another Dozen:

Leyla McCalla, “A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey”

KPCC review:


Dawes, “We’re All Gonna Die.”

My coverage of their Grammy Museum appearance:


Sturgill Simpson, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”

KPCC review:


Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker”


Luisa Maita, “Fio da Memória”

KPCC review:


La Santa Cecilia, “Buenaventura”

KPCC review:


Rokia Traoré, “Né So”

KPCC review:


Lucinda Williams, “The Ghost of Highway 20”

KQED review:


Esperanza Spalding, “Emily’s D+Evolution”


Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, “A Man Alive”



Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool”

BuzzBandsLA concert review:


Nik Bartsch’s Mobile, “Continuum”