Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Venice Christmas

I didn't get to go home for the holidays this year, for a bunch of reasons I won't bore you with, but I wasn't that thrilled about not being in the snow with my family and loved ones back in Minnesota. It just doesn't feel that much like Christmas in California, if you come from the Great White North, you know?

But then I accepted invitations that I haven't been able to in past years as I'm never here in Venice at the holidays ... and then it started to feel a LOT like Christmas.

The fun started with a party at Councilman Bill Rosendahl's home that he shares with Swami X, Venice's favorite guru. Swami really wanted to live to see December 21, 2012 and its dawn of a "new day of consciousness," and he made it, so they threw a party for all of Venice, it seemed. The driveway was lined with LAPD, prompting me to ask if they were the Carolers. They were not.  It turned out they were there because so was Mayor Villaraigosa, who was happy to sit on the floor at Bill and Swami's feet, listening to them both speechify. Swami did so during the moment of silence for the Newtown, Connecticut shooting victims, but it gave him the floor to be heard. Highlights from Swami: "You're not a body, you're a soul."  "There is no Hell, just different levels of Heaven." And the most important, "Love is the essence of the Universe." Amen to all that, and Cheers to Bill and Swami (and to the world not ending this day)!

Then it was on to the Ugly Sweater Party at Canal Club, where owner Danny Samakow turned us on to Candycane Martinis - and made me wear one of his loaner ugly sweaters. Fa la la!

Christmas Eve was a night of pure loveliness at the Ellis yard, where it was just warm enough to eat our feast outside under the stars and ornaments hanging from the tree.

And a feast it was!

Everyone chipped in to weigh the table down with too much goodness, but the piece de resistance was the seabass baked in a bread/salt crust, executed by Miss Vavine. I mean, Wow.

 Tales were told around the fire, where it felt old fashioned as we sipped Matt's Old Fashioneds.

There were brand new friends this year, two pigs called Georgia and Paloma. They join the Penmar neighborhood chickens in what is turning into a true urban farm. Coolness.

We ate and drank and ate some more, all wearing our silver crowns that came in the crackers at each place setting.

We called our families, and maybe did feel a little homesick, but as I looked around at my fun, smart, thoughtful, talented, sweet and dear friends, I really did feel home, and really did feel that I was with family. None of that feeling is about geography, and really IS about love - the essence of the Universe after all.

Merry Venice Christmas, and so many thanks to everyone who shared it with me! It was truly beautiful, with snow or not.

*Ugly Sweater photo courtesy of Venice Papparazzi

** Group dinner photo by Miss Emma Leslie

Friday, December 21, 2012

Glögg Fest 2012!

Tis the season ... for the Glögg! Glögg Fest 2012 is on the books, and was as cozy an evening as I can remember. I had all the Norwegian decorations up, the Christmas tree smelled great, the baking was done, and the glögg simmered away on the stove, as my friend Jessy and I stuffed whole cloves into oranges (for pomanders!) right up until the guests began to arrive.

I love having this party, as it gives me the chance to see many of my favorite people before everyone goes their separate ways for the holidays. I always like to have it on a week night, so there's no competing with all the weekend party madness, and all the focus can be on the glögg, where it should be. My friend Hilary has freshly dubbed it, "Blackout Juice". I wouldn't go that far, but the drink of Vikings does pack a potent, though delicious, wallop.

Lefse was introduced to some people for the first time (the "Norwegian tortilla" - made from mashed potatoes), and cookies were scarfed down until there weren't even crumbs left.

This year was the first time I ever ran out of glögg, forcing me to make a new batch from the good wine for late-comers! People were ready to party.

That fact was also made evident by the beautiful mistletoe brought as a hostess gift! Fa la la!

I tend to stay in the kitchen for Glögg Fest, as you have to keep making new batches of the stuff, so I didn't really take too many pictures, but suffice it to say, the place was packed to the gills with all of the extra wonderful people that I'm lucky enough to have as friends.

When the last drop had gone down the hatch, and the last hug had been given, I blew out the candles and went to bed, not with visions of sugarplums, but of steaming cups and smiling faces, sent off into the night, with bellies warm and full. It made for the very sweetest of dreams, and I wish every single person I know could have been there.

Merry Christmas (God Jul!) to all, and see you at next year's Fest if you missed this one! SKÖL!!!

*photo of me by Vavine Tahapehi

Monday, December 17, 2012

Venice Canals Holiday Rain On Parade

Yesterday was my annual baking day with my dear friend, Brigette ... and we mean business. We catch up and talk and stuff, but it's serious work too. Hard work (math ... endurance ... patience), that made the break we took to attend the Venice Canals Holiday Boat Parade even sweeter.

The drag was that it was raining, but rain gear and Irish coffees to go made us impervious to the elements, pretty much. If you squinted (or look at my photos), you could kind of pass the rain drops off for snow flakes.

I was surprised at the good turnout in the rain, especially for L.A. people. It tapered off to more of a mist, and we tried to find the main drag of the parade, though it looked like far fewer boats/floats this year, so it was hard to be sure.

We got pulled over by the cops on our way into the canals ... for riding in the middle of the street. Yep. We got off with a warning, but it felt like a stupid waste of time. Again. Can't we just be adults having harmless fun without getting hassled? Can't we be commended for riding our bikes in the rain instead of driving and creating more havoc? Guess not.

Oh, and speaking of driving and creating havoc, I think we might want to ask that cars not be allowed on the canal bridges on the night of the Holiday Parade. Because the people and bikes were maybe an inch away from the cars passing by, with tons of kids out, and it just isn't safe. My friend almost went into the drink trying to get out of the way of one vehicle, and that ain't cool. No cars on parade night. Thanks.

Anyway, the mood was bright, in spite of the bunk weather, and maybe even more so. You felt hard core about the fun, so the spirit of that was infectious.

A Brig vessel sailed by, and my friend Sydney and his surfing dog, Buddha SUP'd on by with some friends, all lit up. People shouted their approval from under their umbrellas, and cared less about getting a little wet for this.

Families and friends and some guys in tuxes with a big screen featuring a photo of Barry Manilow went by, which they lowered to clear the canal bridges. Comedy.

It looked magical out, as the mist dissipated and the skies cleared to reveal a perfect crescent moon lightening everything up even further. The lights on the bridges reflected their colors off of the canal water, and it was about as lovely as you can imagine. Made even lovelier when some teenage girls walked around arm-in-arm singing Christmas carols, without affectation or jokiness, simply sweetly. Magical again.

 As we were oohing and aahing and laughing and carousing, a lit-up (inside and out) and mystical Elf man came walking by, full of jokes and probably a lot of nog. He insisted on having his picture taken with each of us, and then sauntered off - growling like the Cowardly Lion at us -  to make other peoples' night. That's when you just go, "I love you, Venice."

And so I do. For evenings and events exactly such as this. Keeping it special. Filling you with that spirit of community and fun.

But there was still baking to be done ... so we dinged our bells to each other, and the bikes (very legally and safely) carried us off in our separate ways, cold, but hearts completely warm.

Merry Merry!!!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Snow Falls On Venice

Sunday was Holiday Family Fun day here in Venice, and for us, that meant SNOW! The day was sunny, bright and warm, which made the whole deal more surreal ... which is perfect for Abbot Kinney, especially these days.

I had just spoken to some friends back home in Minnesota, where they were experiencing an actual blizzard, like Snow Day style, so they might all get a kick out of seeing this little snow hill story today. Don't scoff though, folks, some of these little guys in Venice had never even fathomed what snow IS, so this was a big deal.

Proven by the lines to ride a sled down the mini snow/hay hill in The Brig parking lot. Looong lines. Barely patient kids and their camera-toting parents stood in line to wait their turn, talking with neighbors and friends to pass the time. 

The smiles on the little faces zipping down the tiny glacier clearly made it worth it.

Some even got up enough speed to smack into the hay bales at the bottom. Skills.

If sledding wasn't enough entertainment for you, there was a booth where you could get faces painted, do little crafts, or stand in another line at one of the seemingly ever-present food trucks in The Brig's lot. (Or not).

As the sun climbed higher up in the day, the parking lot got a lot more wet. Shorts made more sense than snow pants ... unless you were sliding in the soggy snow. No one cared, this was strictly about FUN.

Well, fun and Santa! He was on a break when I was there (needing to save his energy for Christmas Eve, I suppose), but I heard he was pretty legit looking, and plenty of kids got to tell him what they wanted, and get those all-important lap photos taken, willingly or not.

Strolling down the boulevard, we came upon the dears that are the Off Their Jingle Bell Rockers, singing their Venice holiday classic, "It's Christmas On Abbot Kinney". They were the holiday spirit itself, and we swayed and smiled, and thanked goodness for them.

Especially when they dashed out into the crosswalk, stopping traffic, twirling and singing in the street. That was my favorite moment of the day - seeing the people in their cars, wondering what craziness goes down here in this wacky Venice ... Exactly what we love about it. Exactly what we need so much more of right where they were. We left the Rockers as they stormed The Roosterfish to bring some cheer to the daytime revelers inside. I was tempted to join them, but had all day wanted to see the water, the sunshine, and the grand performance of The Boardwalk.

After running into so many great people down there, eating great food at The Fig Tree, catching up with friends, epically ranting, and soaking up all the real Venice one could possibly hope for in an afternoon, the joy of the day was punctuated with a wintery, pastel sunset and the communal hymn that is the Drum Circle. Exaltation.

Pure joy and release echoed into the sky, and was juxtaposed against the total serenity of a sailboat gliding by on the calmest of days. I just stopped in my tracks, breathed in deeply, and felt so happy to be right exactly where I was ...

A festive - and profound - Holiday Sunday in Venice.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Tom Morello Tears Up The Troubadour

The Nightwatchman was back on duty at The Troubadour in Los Angeles last night, and the sold out show was packed with the Tom Morello faithful. It had been a year since his last show in this storied venue, and a LOT has gone down in the world since, and Morello always has something profound to say about it all.

I love the Nightwatchman shows for many reasons, but a big one is that I always get to see our gang of mutual friends and catch up on the latest. This is the best, but last night I regret to say that it did prevent me from catching Tom's opening act, David Rovics. Tom's friend and an outspoken singer for social justice, Rovics was reported to be real good, with a bit of a "busker" vibe to him, according to one friend. I will get there next time, and apologize to Mr. Rovics that I wasn't inside in time to catch any of his tunes. Dang.

People were stuffed in to the rafters, and when the lights went down and the dramatic intro music came up, the place went wild before a note was played.  Morello took the stage, and "Good evening, Los Angeles! I'm the Nightwatchman, and this is 'Maximum Firepower'!" With that, Morello tore right into his great song that features the truism If you take a step towards freedom, it will take two steps towards you. Right on.

The Freedom Fighter Orchestra (Dave Gibbs, Carl Restivo, Eric Gardner, and a new guy on keys that Tom called "The Bull Shark") joined Morello on stage for a heavy version of "It Begins Tonight" which blew right into the classic from Tom's first solo album, "One Man Revolution". At the end of that one, Morello yelled, "Fuck YEAH!" - taking the words out of everyone's mouths.

 "The first time I experienced reciprocal romantic love, I was 17 and she had 6 strings and a fret board," said Tom to introduce "Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine", which he played on the guitar of the same name. I ain't alone no more... he sang to his People, and the shouts back affirmed that very fact.

That's a great thing about these guys and these songs ... they are for the People, and they do let you know that none of us are alone in it. The Nightwatchman shows up for all sorts of protests and benefits and causes, and is out there sticking up for justice every chance he gets. Through all these endeavors, friendships are made, and a veritable "Fox News Enemy List" was in the house last night. Union Members (which Morello is, and proudly), the successful Long Beach Longshoreman strikers, Walmart strikers, Anti-war activists, Occupy Wall Street founders, and everyday people trying to get by and do the right things ... all of us were rocking it out together last night ... and no one was alone.
That was a perfect time for "Union Town", which Los Angeles surely is. Morello ended that one by shouting the Lennon line, "A Working Class Hero is something to be!" It sure is. 

Tom and his good friend and comrade, Ben Harper, "set out to write a song that would change the world", so Tom went to Ben's house, where they decided that "to save others, you have to save yourself" and came up with the beautiful and true, "Save The Hammer For The Man." Carl Restivo took over the Ben verses this night (to wild applause), and Tom played a gorgeous solo on his "Whatever It Takes" acoustic guitar. So good. Then came the equally intense and deep, "The Fifth Horseman of The Apocalypse", which I love, and clearly so did everyone else. There was a tangible feeling of deep respect all night, both from the audience for the band, and they for them. These are intensely special shows, and that's just a fact.

"Whatever It Takes" had a superfan guy near me not only singing along with every word, but doing little gestures to illustrate the words too. I love those people, with their unadulterated enthusiasm for what they love. They MEAN it. Probably because they're watching a show from a guy who REALLY means it, a lot more than most.

Like when he told about working with the IVAW (Iraq Vets Against The War) and becoming friends with Tomas Young, the subject of the great documentary Body Of War. We visited the Walter Reed Hospital on Morello's Justice Tour of 2008, and Tom, Tomas and I went in the hospital rooms and talked with these injured (mangled, really) vets, and it was one of the most intense experiences of my life. Young has been having some setbacks with blood clots of late, and Tom dedicated his song, "Stray Bullets" to him and the IVAW members in the audience. Why the fuck we're even here, I'll never know ... a good question to ask of ALL war.

Amnesty International released a big Bob Dylan cover album (Chimes Of Freedom) and Tom next played his contribution to that behemoth of tributes, "Blind Willie McTell", which was great as you would expect. It featured a dope electric solo and a full band metallic rock out at the end. From there, "You get acoustic, you get electric, you get 50 shades of The Nightwatchman tonight!" Totally right, as after that heaviness, Tom asked for total silence, "Or I'll send my 89 year old Mom out there, and you don't want that". That shut everyone up - totally - and Tom played his sublime, "Garden Of Gethsemane", his Mom's favorite. It was SO quiet you really could hear people breathing, and every intricate acoustic note and word was not just heard, but RECEIVED. The eruption of grateful noise at its end was a total jolt after the silence, and set the tone for the next one.

"From the pitch and the squeals, I can tell we have our first female audience members tonight!" joked Tom, and then they played "The one we wrote for the ladies", the party song, "Shake My Shit". Tom was dancing like I've never seen him cut a rug before, and then blew the minds with a guitar solo played with his teeth. When the room went wild, he shouted, "Consider your shit shook!" Yep. It was.

Rage Against The Machine - Tom's other band- is having their 20 year anniversary, so Tom shared a story about when they were "The original Occupy Wall Street" and they shot the "Sleep Now In The Fire" video on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange, directed by Michael Moore. This wound up being Moore's first time being arrested, as he had given them the one main directive, "Whatever happens, don't stop playing!" So they didn't. When Tom just played the little opening riff from that song, the room went crazy, causing Tom to say, "It's funny how just that does that", referring to the cause and effect of that epic jam.

But they didn't play that one, and instead went into "The Road I Must Travel", which the whole place sang along with the "Na na na na" chorus, which wrapped up with a Rage-y stomp that had the whole place banging heads as one. "All together in solidarity!" The point of the whole night, and the whole of the music, really.

"Would you like one more song?" WOOOOOO! "The People united, will never be defeated!" smiled Tom and gave us the song that he joined The Boss on the night before in Anaheim, "The Ghost Of Tom Joad". I get chills every time I hear this one, and it's because Tom completely made it his own. The solo on this one is just so mind blowing, and the melody so deep, that I still get choked up over it. I hope every person with ears gets to hear it in their lifetime, and hopefully live, and there's just nothing like it. A guy next to me simply shouted, "WHAT?!?!" Nonplussed and thrilled. As were we all. (The picture below isn't blurry, that was the speed of the solo!)

"Convince me you'd like to hear one more song!" Everyone did, so they got the Woody Guthrie now Nightwatchman anthem, "This Land Is Your Land", which Tom wants played in a post-revolutionary world, "When they paint the White House black ...". All ages (from 7 to 89!), from the bartenders to the balconies,  EVERYONE sang and jumped along, like never before. "We're all in this together!" It was pure jubilance.

"Curfew be damned, we're going for 3 hours and 25 minutes!" joked Tom, with another Bruce reference. He invited the entire Troubadour on stage for "World Wide Rebel Songs", and they pretty much all took him up on the offer. It was chaotic and fun and a lifetime memory for many of the ecstatic faces beaming out from the stage. This song, which asks the crucial question, Are you gonna stand around, or are you gonna be free?! came about when Tom played a benefit for Korean guitar makers on strike, who then donated all of the money earned to the earthquake victims in Haiti - again proving the power of the human spirit, and that we truly are all in this thing together.

Chants of "ONE MORE!!" grew, and Tom said, "I got nowhere to be 'til my kids get up at 4 am", so we went back to "the romantic lighting, for a nice hippie vibe". The people on stage all sat down right there, and Tom played my favorite Nightwatchman song, "Let Freedom Ring". Total quiet, total beauty of a moment, just watching the rapt faces on the true fans gathered around Tom's feet. The words still, and always, ring true ... Let. Freedom. Ring. Not a lot else has to be said.

With the now-trademark farewell, "Take it easy, but take it!" Morello and The Freedom Fighter Orchestra left the stage, weaving their way through the throngs around them, and that was that.

Happy, sweaty faces stayed behind talking and you could feel the inspiration coursing through the collective body of humanity gathered. Because these are the songs about life that really need to be heard. These are the people in life that are really trying to make a difference in the world, on stage and off. And these are the moments in life that really matter.  Take them easy, but TAKE THEM.

*Photos by me and Brooklyn Joe Vitale