Thursday, June 04, 2009

On The Passing Of Heroes

I started writing this blog to mark the passing of two of my personal heroes, both of them very different but both of them artists in their own right. It occurred to me that when a person achieves a certain heroic status that they can never really die. They've achieved immortality because of the lives they've touched, the young people they've influenced, the indelible mark they've left on the world.

I was still a teenager with dreams of becoming a singer when I first heard Koko Taylor, who passed away yesterday at the age of 80. At that time in the seventies, there weren’t a lot of contemporary pop role models for girls like me who were ready to challenge gender stereotypes and play just as hard as the boys. That’s where the blues came in. Blues had a long tradition of powerful women who weren’t afraid to speak their minds and who sang with a raw, sexual energy that I found lacking in female pop singers of the day. Listen to Koko Taylor singing the classic “Wang Dang Doodle” and you’ll instantly know what I mean: the swaggering, in your face, no-holds barred attitude is all there in that three and half minutes of sexual bravado. Or sample her recording of “I’m A Woman” – no man ever rocked harder than Koko.

I had the privilege of seeing Koko Taylor perform live at a blues festival just a couple of years ago. Thanks to my friend Candye Kane, I was able to go backstage and see Koko before her performance. Having listened to her powerful voice for years, I was excited to meet this Amazonian woman so I was surprised to see that she looked a little frail and was being supported on the arm of her daughter as she shuffled towards the stage. I hurried around to the front so I wouldn’t miss her performance and I witnessed the magical, transformative power of music. Gone was the shuffling, fragile, elderly female I’d just said hello to backstage and in her place was the legendary powerhouse Koko Taylor – a still vital force of nature, dominating the stage, the crowd at her command. A consummate professional, she gave us her all and never let her age or her infirmities stand in the way of a great performance.

Thank you, Koko. Thank you for the inspiration and the music. Thank you for breaking down barriers so that other women could follow in your footsteps. We are forever in your debt.

Also a brief mention of the sad passing of David Carradine. It's hard to explain but for those of us who came of age in the seventies, Kung Fu was an incredibly inspirational television show. Who didn't want to snatch the pebble from the master's hand and head out on a spiritual journey, kicking bad guys' butts along the way? For me, David Carradine will always be Kwai Chang Caine, the half Chinese, half white seeker of wisdom who never looked for a fight but always seemed to find one. David Carradine created much more than a television character, he created a hero for my generation.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Deep In The Heart of Texas

With June busting out all over and my daughter safely tucked into a cruise ship cabin alongside her school friend on a week long sail to Alaska, I finally got a chance to hop on a Southwest jet and fly out to Houston to visit my hubby. The economic recession has hit many industries, including the travel industry that employs him. Texas is one of the few western states with a relatively sound economy so he went where the work was. It's a hardship being apart but it makes the much longed-for reunions sweet. My husband made this reunion even sweeter by greeting me at the airport with a bag of freshly baked pan dulce from Houston based Arandas Panaderia.

"The first thing you have to know about Houston..." my hubby explained as we crawled to a slow roll behind a line of brake lights on the freeway, "is that it's very much like L.A. It's spread out all over the place, most people live in the suburbs and there is almost no public transportation, which means you have awful traffic during rush hour." He dutifully pointed out downtown, Minute Maid park ("where the Astros play") a new outdoor venue called "Discovery Green", the museum district and the area he described as one of the original four wards of the city. "Houston was originally divided into four wards and slaves were almost half of the population of the city. After the civil war, some of the former slaves created an area in the Fourth Ward called Freedmen's Town and part of it still exists. They're practically the oldest buildings in the city but they want to knock them down to build luxury condos." I realized that he was right about the city resembling LA; even the attitude towards architectural history was similar.

As we headed north, I was struck by how lush Houston is: acres of tall trees form green borders alongside the roadways. We continued driving northwest towards Austin on Hwy 290, passing through gently rolling countryside and cattle ranches, punctuated only occasionally by a small town where we'd gawk at signs for the local taxidermist, like the one that read "Blast 'em and Cast 'em."

In Austin, we decided to check out the historic and supposedly haunted Driskill Hotel. We found some friendly spirits at the upstairs bar, where the bartender poured with a heavy hand. After a couple of rounds, we started our ghost investigation. In the Maximilian Room, where we went to view the Carlota Mirrors (a gift from the Mexican Emperor to his wife) my husband noticed a dark shadow rise up in the reflection of a mirror hanging on the opposite wall, right after he'd seen my reflection pass through the same spot. "You're not going to believe this, but I just saw a shadow pop up behind you in the mirror." He had no idea that a few seconds before, I'd suddenly gotten very cold and the hairs on my arms were now standing up on goose pimples. As we looked for more apparitions in the mirrors, one of the overhead light fixtures flickered. Thoroughly excited by these occurrences and inspired by my viewings of the Ghost Hunters Sci-Fi Network show, I attempted to provoke the spirit by daring it to touch Greg. He shot me a worried look but apparently the spirits decided not to come out and play.

We found a great place to eat called Mr. Natural where we enjoyed the $6.99 lunch special: tofu and black bean gorditas, mole cheese enchiladas, spicy pepper potatoes, zucchini and chickpea poblano, homemade tortillas, veggie tamales...I was in VEGGIE HOG HEAVEN and decided it would be ok to live in Austin if I could live within walking distance of Mr. Natural. We both gave it thumbs up.

Later that evening, we made our way to the Congress Bridge to watch a local phenomenon: the flight of thousands of bats from under the bridge to begin their evening feast of insects. But first, we had to wait. And wait. Hundreds of people showed up, lining the bridge and the banks of the river: adults with batman shirts and capes, kids with bat t-shirts, people camped out with snacks and six packs of beer, all awaiting the emergence of the nocturnal creatures. Excitement mounted as the squeaks from under the bridge grew in volume and a few random bats took tentative test flights, circling out from the bridge for a few feet then circling back. It seemed as if the bats needed to build up steam in order to take flight, either that or they were waiting to build the crowd's expectations. Finally, the cloud o' bats emerged in waves, starting at one end of the bridge and rippling across the river. They flew off in a serpentine pattern toward the forest alongside the river and just when you thought they must surely be done even more emerged, darkening the sky with their multitudes.

Although part of the trip was for pleasure, there was also work to be done. I wanted to help my husband move into his temporary home in Houston, so upon returning from Austin we got to the business of stocking his new apartment. It was nice to be able to help Greg get settled. I wanted to make sure that despite his being away from home and family he would have a place to call his own. It's difficult being apart and having to commute such a long distance but I try to remind myself that economic hardships are cyclical and I have faith that things will get better and our family will be together again.