Archive for February, 2010

Neil Young and the Pacific Coliseum
February 20, 2010

I was surprised when I heard the Pacific Coliseum was going to be an Olympic skating venue.   The Coliseum is about fourty years old and home to junior hockey teams.   One of the skaters actually complained the venue feels more like a place for training, rather than competing.  No doubt. Still, the athletes have have risen above it.

The other night, as part of the Cultural Olympiad,  a Neil Young tribute concert took place at the Vogue, starring Lou Reed, Ron Sexsmith and Broken Social Scene.   It sounds like a good idea, although the concert didn’t get a great review.  The reviewer said the best person to sing Neil Young songs is Neil Young. 

I saw Neil Young at the Pacific Coliseum in 1973.   

My friend Janice lived across the street from me and was a devoted Neil Young fan.  We used to listen to his records on a turntable in her bedroom.  Janice was particularly fond of “Sugar Mountain” and I remember her mother laughing when we said the song made us feel old. 

Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain/With the barkers and the coloured balloons/You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain/Though you’re feeling that you’re leaving there too soon.

 Neil Young’s tour “Time Fades Away”  was announced.  Janice’s parents would only let her go to the concert if she went with someone older.  She hurriedly phoned me.   I was 15 and she was 13.

Her father dropped us off at the Pacific Coliseum and we eagerly joined a peaceful crowd of hippies, stoners and other suburban young people.  It was general admission and the place was so crowded that we had to sit on the stairs.  We were too excited to care.  Years later I read that night was the Coliseum’s highest occupancy ever- it was oversold.

Linda Ronstadt opened.  She was not yet a star and many in the crowd didn’t know her.   People shouted for Neil Young and booed her.  She sang beautifully and  tried to keep her composure but was almost in tears by the end.  Linda Ronstadt never returned to play in Vancouver, as far as I know.  I don’t blame her.

Then Neil Young came on.  The night was pure magic.   As songs we knew were announced or begun,  Janice and I would look at each other and grin with happiness.   Neil Young  even played “Sugar Mountain”.   It blew our minds.   The whole night seemed like a dream.

After the show, we waited at a pre-arranged spot and Janice’s father swung by and picked us up.

My favourite Neil Young song, although there are many so great ones, is “Cinnamon Girl”.

Best cover –  The Cowboy Junkies singing a heartbreaking and mysterious  “Powderfinger”.


Cabbages and Kings…and Olympics
February 11, 2010

Finally I got the last instalment of “I Claudius” from the library.  It has a wonderful ending.  As Claudius lies dying,  the oracle Sybil, appears to him.  Claudius has bypassed his own son and named Nero as his successor – partly in hope that the Romans, disgusted with Nero, will restore the republic.  The amused Sybil tells Claudius that Nero will murder his son and a long line of emperors will continue. 

I thought afterwards of the emperor who did step down and restore the republic – Diocletian.  He immediately left Rome and retired to a castle/farming estate in what is now the town of Split in Croatia.  After he left, factional fighting broke out again in Rome and a messenger was sent to Split, begging him to return as emperor.  Diocletian sent the reply:

 “If you could see the cabbages I have raised with my own hands, you would not ask me to return to the glories of Rome.”

 There is a fascinating and classic book, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” by Rebecca West.  She is a brilliant journalist who wrote of touring Yugoslavia in the 30’s.  She captured not only life in that country but the atmosphere in Europe just before WWII broke out.   At one point, West visited Split and found and commented on the remains of Diocletian’s estate there.

 The most interesting thing about West’s journey is she visited many small towns in Yugoslavian and met many characters.  She found the spiritual life there was a strange and varying mixture of pagan, Roman and Christian rites – signs that spirituality evolves constantly through the accumulating and discarding of various religions.  Lately the Christian churches, particularly Anglican and Presbyterian, are finding they are fading due to low enrolment.  They won’t disappear; just become another archaeological layer in the spiritual earth of the human psyche.

 The Romans used to bury a slave in ground under the corner of a building – a human sacrifice to bring the blessings of the gods.  Today, we still often “dedicate” the cornerstones of new buildings.   I wonder how Christianity will manifest itself, hundreds of years from now – if we are still here.

 Finally, about the Olympics – there is much secrecy and discussion on who will light the Olympic flame.  Wayne Gretzky seems to be the forerunner.  My guess is that it will be a Paralympic athlete.  We’ll see.

Vancouver Awaits the World
February 10, 2010

People in Vancouver are now quite excited about the Olympics.   The volunteers and workers all arrived this week and are walking around in their blue jackets.  Yet, in other ways, the downtown core is strangely void of people in areas.  I think a lot of people are avoiding downtown.  The merchants are nervous as the big crowds have not yet materialized.  Still, it’s fun the way the city has gone all-out to put on a visual display.  I’m not much of a photographer but I took my camera out to snap some pictures.  Here’s the Art Gallery in chintz.  The Olympic count-down clock is to the right. Click these pictures to enlarge, if you didn’t already know that.

The whole side of the Royal Bank was redone with an Olympic image.

The dull Canada Post Office did the same.

And The Bay department store

Streets have been closed.  Robson Street leading to BC Place.  It’s great – like Car-Free Day!

Olympic Tents around BC Place

A deserted Cambie Street Bridge – closed for the first opening ceremony dress rehearsal.  Heard later it was dazzling.

From the Cambie Street Bridge,  the large ball, formerly Science World, is now the Russian Pavilion.  Athletes village to the right.

Banners on the bridge, they line streets throughout downtown.

Pacific Centre Mall redone as an igloo.  Very clever.

Most of the stores have some Olympic window dressing

Olympic Magical Thinking
February 4, 2010

When Vancouver was awarded the Olympics years ago, someone commented to me, “Maybe they were good 2000 years ago…”     I agreed.  I had voted against them.  They cost too much and will impact Vancouver’s education, health and housing budgets for years, maybe decades.   Most Vancouverites I know are disillusioned by the cost and as yet do not feel included.    

 But since the Olympic Games are here and we are paying for them,  I’m trying to accentuate the positive.  Get what you can while you can, is the best policy.  While roads close to traffic and giant sporting images appear on buildings, I have concentrated on getting some very magical moments out of the Olympic cultural events.  

On the steps of the Art Gallery, there is a huge jumbotron screen showing short films and images made by international artists.  Passing the screen as I walked home one day, I saw a black and white film of a tiny jetliner flying through a kitchen, past the cupboards, sink  and fruit bowl to land smoothly on the countertop.   With a crowd of about 20 people, I watched the miniature plane taxi to a stop beneath the kitchen window. 

I went to a concert by the Kronos Quartet featuring the dazzling throat singer Tanya Tagaq.  She undulated to a fabulous soundscape, giving voice to primal sounds that suggested a range from keening to panting to speaking in tongues.  It was mesmerizing.  While Kronos played the composition “Tundra Songs”  behind her  – Tagaq seemed to be vocalizing the human unconscious.   Kronos also played another work based on the sounds of the Weddell seal.  For several minutes, this animal’s strange call amplified through the Chan Centre theatre –  an electronic-sounding, long whistling followed a kind of rusty door creaking in the wind.   It felt like the whole audience was under water.

Last night I went to see KAMP at the Roundhouse theatre. Filling  the stage was a miniature recreation of Auschwitz, modelled by Dutch artists.  These artists also had made thousands of little gumby-like white figures with eyes and mouth of twisted voids, wearing the Auschwitz striped, grey pyjamas.   Some of these figures can be moved and manipulated with wires.   Three artists moved the tiny figures and, using a camera, projected the images up on the wall at the back.   In projection, we watched these strange little figures shovel rocks, sweep, prepare a hanging,  get beaten to death by guards, drop their clothes and herd naked and frightened into the gas chamber.  A train arrived and more frightened gumby figures were unloaded.  The camera scanned the tiny suitcases and shoes left behind.  Bodies were loaded into ovens.  A prisoner electrocuted himself on the barbed wire fence.  It was amazing how the camera made the set look large and real.   It was fascinating, weird and horrifying.  Not so much Auschwitz, I felt, as documentation of a horrible place in the human psyche.   What an extraordinary work.   Afterwards, the artists came forward and stood silently while the audience solemnly clapped.   One artist’s grandfather had died in Auschwitz. 

At 560 Seymour, the old A&B Sound building is being redeveloped.  I entered a blacked-out door, walked down a hallway stripped for reconstruction and took the elevator up to the second floor.  There is an art show there, including  an interactive exhibit called IKONS.   Narrow wooden pyramids are arranged in rows, painted in abstract designs done in shades of green.   They are a kind of “sound trees”.  As you walk in and out of them, sounds of strings, drums and electronic music are triggered by your proximity and kind of strange symphony plays. 

Finally,  the Vancouver Museum has a fascinating show called “The Art of Craft”, which showcases top Korean and Canadian craftspeople.  Some people say craft is not art, but I disagree.  One work in particular impressed me.   An artist from Northern BC had taken the idea of the lowly shipping pallet and reworked it into furniture.   Instead of using cheap lumber, he made several pallets out of black walnut wood and polished them with tung oil to a lustrous dark sheen.  They were then stacked slightly at angles to make a coffee table.   From humble to high end.   That is what art is about – changing our perspective on things.

Bowl of Pears
February 4, 2010

Once again, my favourite subject – pears.

I Claudius
February 2, 2010

I have been watching DVD episodes of the 1976 drama “I Claudius” about the reign of Roman emperors, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius.   It’s remarkable how the BBC was able to produce these  riveting and classic productions while spending very little on sets.

An aquaintance of mine told me she and her husband had always loved “I Claudius” and had watched it together when it first aired.   She said she still thought of Claudius’ grandmother Livia, because she had a plant in her garden closely related to one that Livia poisoned her victims with.

She also told me her family still quoted lines from the show.  In particular, her husband still occasionally used the phrase, “The Emperor has undergone a metamorphosis.”

I couldn’t help but wonder in what context he used it.  I didn’t ask.