Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Key West - Circa 1992

The Florida Keys are a masterpiece of geology. Coral reefs support a series of small islands lush with tropical foliage. Among their wildlife is a miniature species of deer, found nowhere else. It is assumed that deer became trapped on the islands during the last ice age and, over time, adjusted their size to their, now extremely limited territory. Alas, the Key Deer are endangered. However conservation efforts since the 1950's seemed to have stabilized the population level. Pirates used the Keys to evade authorities, Flying over them in one of the tiny planes that leave Miami for Key West on a schedule as regular as that of a city bus, it is easy to imagine a ship being successfully secreted in one of the numerous bays and inlets of the island chain.

I visited Key West 3 times over 3 consecutive years seeking a week long respite from Chicago's wintry chill. It is the southernmost point in the U.S. It's reputation as a hedonistic playground had begun to wane by the time of my visits, although there was still a sizable gay presence. One of the highlights of the trips were the Sunday afternoon dance parties attended by scores of bare chested men held on a pier which extended out over the ocean.

The island does posses a rich architectural legacy. An architectural sub genre, appropriately named "Key West Architecture" is defined as a mixture of Victorian and Southern Gothic with a Caribbean flair. One building along Duval Street, the town';s main drag, would look at home in any southern town, except for the bounding dolphins cut out in the balustrade of it's second floor balcony. Some buildings are raised above ground level to protect them from the waters that can rage through the streets during tropical storms. Being a coral island water cannot soak in, only run off. In one area, the Bahamian Village, the homes were constructed in the Bahamas and then shipped to Key West. There was a restaurant in this area I always made a point to visit where chickens ran wild around the dining tables in the yard.

Due to the hardness of the islands coral base creating swimming pools requires explosives to blast open holes in which to construct them. Outside of Ernest Hemingway's home, featured in a James Bond movie, which has a wine cellar, basements are nonexistent. Because of the year round warm, sunny climate the foliage is full and rich. I recall a philodendron which wound around a tree in the courtyard of the guest house we stayed in whose leaves were easily 3 feet across.

There is little to "do" there. Tourists seemed to satisfy themselves relaxing by pools and eating or shopping in the numerous restaurants and boutiques. On one visit my travel companions gifted me with a beautiful silver and lapis cuff I had seen in one of the shop windows. Although I no longer wear it, it did see everyday wear for a number of years, it sits on my dresser where I can always see and enjoy it and be reminded of the deep level of love and generosity in my friends who I feel fortunate to still have in my life.

I always rented a bike, one of the best ways to explore the far corners of the island. I remember a Sunday morning ride where I encountered a young girl, perhaps 6 or 7, dancing on the sidewalk outside a church to the sounds of the spirited gospel choir singing inside. Several afternoons over my visits were whiled away sitting on the hard coral beach watching pelicans dive for fish unfortunate enough to be swimming near the waters surface. You could see the fish wiggle in the birds pouch beneath it's beak before it would throw it's head back swallowing it's unlucky prey. Evenings were spent enjoying the company of other visitors at the evening wine get togethers at the guest house and dancing in the gay bars still extant at the time.

Friendships were developed during these visits. There was the couple from New York City whose upper west side apartment I stayed in during visits to Manhattan. There was the man from Australia  stationed in Nairobi while starting up an office for his company there. He not only got all my jokes, no matter how subtle, but also took them one step further. He was a joy to spend time with. During one conversation he mentioned how vacations were his only chance to express his sexuality due to the conservative social nature of Africa. When I encounter tales like this it makes me grateful that I live in a place which allows me to be myself. I have fought too many battles, personally and publicly, to let that privilege go easily.

The most important relationship forged on the island was that of my dear friends in Phoenix who met there and are still together years later. The deep and long lasting friendship between them and I is one of my life's great treasures.

Often as we get older we shed some of our more wild behaviors, settling on more refined and less adventurous pursuits. Such is the case with Key West. Even during my visits you could tell that the legendary tolerance and debauchery the island was noted for was beginning to disappear. On the downward slope from it's apex. Today it is reinventing itself as a more family friendly destination. One of the most notorious of the gay guest houses now caters to a hetero clientele. While physical places may not change times do. Particular places at particular times exist only in memories. I look forward to new places, in new times to create more of these.   

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bread & Roses Concert - U.C. Berkeley Greek Theatre - Early 1980's

Every year, during my time in San Francisco, the Greek Theatre on the U.C. Berkeley campus hosted a 3 day benefit music festival for an organization called "Bread and Roses". The organization brought live music performances to schools and hospitals. The benefit concerts consisted largely of folk music with many of the musicians coming from the rich mix of artists living in the area at the time. All instrumentation was acoustic, although miked so it could be heard in the large outdoor venue. Since it was a benefit, and many of the performers resided nearby, traditionally they would spend all weekend backstage ensuring a wealth of surprise, sometimes once in a lifetime, musical collaborations.

Growing up my parents music collection, although small, was heavy in Peter, Paul and Mary. 2 guitars and 3 voices conjuring up a sound that no one has ever been able to equal. The trio's beautiful harmonies filled our home as the vinyl records spun on the turntable. Even as a child I knew many of the songs by heart. One year they were headlining the final day of the festival. I called my mother and then procured tickets for myself, her and my stepfather. I met her and my stepfather outside the theatre and we climbed our way to the top finding a suitable spot on the lawn.

 The stage was festooned with a floral swag along it's edge. The Persuasions opened the concert that afternoon. Coming out in matching suits they sang with R&B and gospel harmonies so tight they performed their entire set acapella. My mother, a proficient pianist, mentioned to me that she had not noticed that they had no backup musicians until the group pointed it out midset. Near the end of their program they stepped down from the front of the stage, obliterating a portion of the floral swag in the process, and began the folk classic "Tom Dooley". They asked the crowd to sing with them. Almost everyone knowing the tune, the arena was filled with sound. They broke us up into groups. "Just the men." A chorus of male voices rose up from the crowd. "Now the women." The higher register of female voices replaced the tenors, baritones and basses of the men. They then shouted "Women over 40".....the silence was deafening. One or two voices could be heard reminding me of the lonely chirp of crickets on a summer night. Individual audience members were invited to take the mike. A handful of people accepted the challenge including one woman whose powerful voice would have shaken the rafters, had the outdoor theatre contained any.

Next Mimi Farina, a poet and founder of Bread and Roses, also the younger sister of Joan Baez, came onstage to introduce Maria Muldaur. Ms. Muldaur, best known for "Midnight at the Oasis", has, to my mind, always been an underrated talent. Perhaps it is because her eclectic repertoire, which ranges from folk to gospel, country to honky tonk, made her difficult to pigeonhole and market. After Ms. Farina's warm and gracious introduction Maria said she almost felt embarrassed to sing the first song she had selected before launching into the bawdy, rollicking "It Ain't the Meat It's the Motion". Her performance offered up the first, that afternoon, of the collaborations this festival was noted for as The Persuasions returned to the stage, having traded in their matching suits for street clothes, to sing backup as she belted out gospel numbers. My memories of her unrestrained, spirited delivery seems a world away from the sanitized, commercial music industry of today.

Next up was Graham Nash. His band included Leah Kunkle, the younger sister of Cass Elliot, who, having just released her own album, had appeared at the festival on one of the 2 previous days. Her husband, Russ Kunkle, a respected and sought after studio musician of the era, handled the background percussion. Midway through his set Graham Nash announced a special guest. A somewhat bedraggled and obese David Crosby waddled out onstage. I had expected his appearance as he also had played the festival earlier that weekend. The venue erupted in applause and cheers. I found myself on the lawn thinking "Well, two out of four ain't bad".

As afternoon turned into evening 3 legendary people took to the stage. 2 men, 2 guitars, 1 woman. As they sang my mother remarked to me, more than once, how they sounded just as they had in the 60's. Their voices rang out clear and pure, in particular the glorious instrument possessed by Mary Travers. Maria Muldaur and The Persuasions joined them onstage adding layer upon layer of stunning vocal harmonies to the already soul stirring sound.

My mother and stepfather, leaving early, missed the final moments of the concert. All the performers that had appeared over the weekend, including iconic folk singers Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, came out to perform Woody Guthrie's American anthem "This Land is Your Land". As I left the theatre and rode the train back across the bay to my apartment in San Francisco I realized that on that afternoon I had been a part of and experienced something very special. A moment in time I cherish that I cannot imagine being replicated today.