There is a wonderful, dare I say, magical hotel in NYC. It is an artist’s dream, a child’s fantasy, and a budget traveler’s deepest desire. I speak of the Carlton Arms Hotel.
The hotel is eccentric and has quite a history, but as a traveler I love that about it. Every room is painted (or sculpted) differently and nothing is plumb (it is a 100+ year-old building). Located at 25th and 3rd, there is a pedestrian area right outside the hotel with tables. It is within walking distance to a ton of stuff, including a fantastic all-veg Indian restaurant a few blocks away. There are also at least two hotel cats, which is always a plus in my book. Based on personal observation it seems to be popular with international travelers.
When I made the reservations, I didn’t specify which room I wanted (you can see them online), I just let them know we had two adults and a child and wanted a room with a private bath. For $150, we got just that AND we got the best room ever. As with all of their rooms, the art is amazing, but this room offers a scavenger hunt. It starts on the wall and leads you to the dresser drawer with another clue, a hidden drawers and notes, and eventually a hidden compartment in the floor with a box. Inside the box are notes and mementos from previous guests. As an adult I thought this was cool; for a child, the scavenger hunt made the Carlton Arms Hotel (and his first real trip to NYC) nothing short of magical.
Music is as fundamental to the character of New Orleans as red beans and rice, which is why I always stop by the Louisiana Music Factory whenever I’m in town. The place focuses on regional music, from New Orleans jazz and R&B to zydeco and early rock ‘n’ roll, and its multiple listening stations are an aural smorgasbord. Every trip unearths a few gems; here are a couple of my favorites.
SHOTGUN JAZZ BAND – Don’t Give Up the Ship
Much like “Johnny B. Goode” sounds as fresh in concert today as when Chuck Berry first recorded it in 1958, the Shotgun Jazz Band’s old-school jazz selections are infused with a vitality that belies their age. Indeed, tracks like Zilner Randolph’s “Old Man Mose”, the opening number on SJB’s 2013 album, Don’t Give Up the Ship, spring from a nearly century-old repertoire.
SJB sweeps aside the at-times too-cool-for-school jazz of the mid-20th century onward, and instead lunges straight for its roots in the New Orleans of Satchmo, the Kingfish, and Prohibition. The band’s “fairly consistent” core lineup – including Christopher Johnson (tenor saxophone); Michael Magro (clarinet); Peter Loggins (trombone); Justin Peake (drums); John Dixon (banjo); and Tyler Thomson (bass) – produces a tight sound that still affects the breeziness of an impromptu hootenanny.
But the proverbial ace up SJB’s sleeve is vocalist and trumpeter Marla Dixon, whose vibrant and soulful style at once recalls blues queen Bessie Smith (notably manifest in her interpretation of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”) and poet Dylan Thomas’s summation of novelist Flann O’Brien’s raucous 1939 masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds: “This is just the book to give your sister – if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.” (The sentiment applies to both band and book in the best possible ways.)
Other highlights include jaunty covers of Wooden Joe Nicholas’s “All the Whores”, Sam Morgan’s “Short Dress Gal”, the Harlem Hamfats’ “Weed Smoker’s Dream”, Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, and a few infectious originals, such as the title track and “Girl, You Better Use Your Head”. The album’s cover art (and title) draw upon Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s battle flag commemorating the dying words of Captain James Lawrence during the War of 1812.
TUBA SKINNY – Pyramid Strut
Fellow New Orleans jazz revivalists Tuba Skinny launch their latest full-length effort, Pyramid Strut (2014), with their take on Bunk Johnson’s “Big Chief Battle Axe” and from there throw an all-hours party.
As the Cramps famously did for forgotten garage and rockabilly, so Tuba Skinny resurrects obscure and long-forgotten tracks from the early days of jazz and blues, such as Victoria Spivey’s “Blood Thirsty Blues” and “Mean Blue Spirits”, a variation of Bessie Smith’s “Blue Spirit Blues”. The band’s line-up includes Todd Burdick (tuba); Westen Borghesi (tenor banjo); Jon Doyle (clarinet); Barnabus Jones (trombone); Shayne Cohn (cornet/fiddle, as well as the album’s cover artwork); Robin Rapuzzi (washboard); and Erika Lewis (vocals/bass drum), whose voice can conjure heaven, hell, and everything in between within the span of three minutes.
What’s more, the band is insanely prolific. While Pyramid Strut (Tuba Skinny’s fifth full-length record since 2009) was just released in early 2014, as of this writing (August 2014), the band’s website already reports the completion of its next album, Owl Call Blues.
While both bands amply demonstrate their musical chops, the music they play itself hearkens back to the bouncy simplicity of early-era jazz, much like the early days of rock and roll and Chicago blues, before both were overrun by dorm-room wankers and 12-minute guitar solos. Both albums are available through Louisiana Music Factory, or directly from the artists’ websites.
This past winter the weather settled into a pattern of snowing on Sunday nights and the city shutting down on Monday. The first snow day or two were great, but then I started having to go into work instead of hunkering down and enjoying Mother Nature’s get out of work free card. On one such Sunday, we decided to get out of Baltimore for a few hours before the storm hit. The sky was leaden as we headed north. We were somewhere around Westminster, near the state line, when our inner 12-year-olds began to take hold.
An hour north of the city, in Hanover, PA, sits the Utz Factory. We decided that if was going to snow, that we might as well stock up on snacks. Wouldn’t want to resort to cannibalism, right? It was a spontaneous trip, so we didn’t plan around the factory tours, but we did walk into the Utz Factory Outlet and for people with a fried potato fetish the angels sang as the doors opened. Potato chips everywhere. <weeping with joy>
Our single basket silently morphed into two baskets. Restraint…What? Why? We were on a fried potato binge that had no bottom. No 12-step reform. And this was a bender we could take the 8-year-old on with us. We found tortilla chips, potato sticks, pretzels, popcorn, chips with olive oil, chips with voodoo seasoning. And when you check out they give you MORE potato chips. We joyously filled the back of our car with oily, salty carbohydrates.
From there we headed just down the street to Timeline Arcade, an arcade in an old bank building. When I was a kid I loved going to the arcade. I didn’t have a home gaming system, I had “my” Food Spot (local minute-mart) and its rotation of games (Joust, Wizards and Warlocks, Asteroid). The Food Spot near the flea market had Galaga and on weekends I honed my skills. There was also a game room in Miami I loved, despite that incident with the air hockey puck. As video games became personal arcade games began to disappear, but Timeline is a classic arcade and better yet, it has classic games.
For an hour or so, WPT, Garnet, and I were all children. We played everything from Galaga to Q*bert to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to The Simpsons to Tetris (I didn’t even know there was an arcade version!). They have games I haven’t seen since grade school and they are in great working condition. They also have pinball machines and old home gaming systems connected to TVs. It was like a living, breathing museum to geeky childhoods.
You pay a flat rate to play by the half-hour or can get an all-day pass. We wanted to stay longer, but the snow was on the way, so we piled back into the car and headed south.
We spent months working our way through the chip stash.
Fifty reverb-drenched years following the release of his signature hit, “Misirlou”, Dick Dale never comes off as an “oldies” act, a feat the 77-year-old “King of the Surf Guitar” reaffirmed with a recent Boston-area performance that for me happily coincided with a work conference in that city.
Having closed down a rooftop cocktail reception our second night in town, three friends and I hailed a cab from the convention hotel in the city’s Back Bay section to Cambridge, just across the Charles River. In less than 10 minutes, the four of us stood outside the Middle East nightclub, located at 472-480 Massachusetts Avenue.
The $30 cover ($25 in advance) was substantially more than the $11 or $12 I used to pay to see Dale back in the mid-’90s, when he rode a wave of resurgent popularity following director Quentin Tarantino’s prominent use of “Misirlou” in his film Pulp Fiction. Still, I was pleased to find the Middle East a throwback to the smaller, darker, more intimate venues frequented in my youth, like Philadelphia’s Trocadero Theatre.
Downstairs, people packed the floor while the opening act, Three Day Threshold, delivered a decent brand of cow-punk somewhat reminiscent of the Supersuckers. I spied an opening at the bar, and we promptly ordered a round. The right moment arrived a few minutes later, when the band went off stage and the crowd briefly broke for the bathrooms and bar. It was then, drinks in hand, that we deftly made our way to the foot of the stage.
Dale is, in a sense, multiculturalism incarnate. Born in Boston to a Polish mother and Lebanese father, he grew up in nearby Quincy before moving with his family to El Segundo, California, where the teenage Dale took up surfing. The traditional Middle Eastern music he had known all his life came to heavily influence a style of music now commonly associated with Southern California. Indeed, his best-known tune, “Misirlou”, is based on a folk song that dates back to the 1920s. With his ferocious speed and amp-blowing volume, many today consider Dick Dale a progenitor of everything from punk to heavy metal.
Despite his advanced years and a recent bout with cancer, Dale, backed by a top-notch bass guitarist and drummer, tore through his 50-year repertoire with hurricane fury that night in Cambridge: “Let’s Go Trippin”, “Fish Taco”, “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, “House of the Rising Sun”, “Louie Louie”, “Summertime Blues”, and a blistering rendition of the late Link Wray’s “Rumble”. He also remains the only man alive who can make both “Hava Nagila” and “Amazing Grace” sound completely bad-ass. No matter the tune, Dale, like the Ramones, has a sound so distinctive that whatever he plays instantly becomes his own.
At one point during the show I turned around to face the crowd. The whole place was packed.
While Dale has to pay the bills just like the rest of us, one aspect that has always stuck with me since his earlier shows is his manifest enthusiasm for his fans. At no time was this ever more evident than the end of the show, when Dale would sit at the edge of the stage and talk with everyone, autograph anything, until the very last person had left, no matter how long that took.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about Dick Dale is that he is nothing if not a survivor, defying a half-century of passing trends, health troubles, and an industry chronically obsessed with youth. As a fellow cancer survivor, I greatly respect that.
If Dale displayed any symptom of age it was sitting in a chair behind the merch table after the show. But there he sat, once again, chatting with fans and signing autographs, until the last folks in line (us) had their turn at the table. I bought a black-and-white photo of the King of the Surf Guitar, circa 1963, which he graciously signed to the attention of my 8-year-old son, also a fan.
“Fantastic as ever, Mr. Dale,” I said as he signed the picture. “I’ve been coming to see you for 20 years now.” He grew momentarily frustrated upon realizing he’d misspelled the word “special”.
“Heh,” he chuckled, handing me the photo. “You don’t look that old.”
“Neither do you, sir,” I laughed. “Neither do you.”
THE MIDDLE EAST
472-480 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139 Phone: (617) 864-3278 Website: http://mideastoffers.com
Anyone accustomed to traveling on business is familiar with the cash cow that the work conference circuit is for the hospitality industry, which commands top dollar for everything from wifi to dessert. Bearing that in mind when she was called to Boston for a three-day conference in late June 2013, Davida began researching more economical alternatives rather than spend her annual travel budget all in one place.
With my own annual conference out of the way, I planned to take a few days off to accompany her. Knowing my love for all things nautical, it was with great enthusiasm that Davida emailed me to ask if I’d be interested in taking a cruise one evening aboard a schooner she discovered during her online digging.
“Absolutely,” I replied.
She emailed me again two minutes later: “How would you like to stay aboard the schooner?”
“Hell yes!” I exclaimed, and with that she promptly booked us for two nights aboard the 125-foot Liberty Clipper.
At $130 a night (with less expensive options available), the deluxe cabin cost roughly one-third the price of a room at the conference hotel. Better still was the fact that, whereas the latter is situated in a stretch of reclaimed industrial waterfront a mile or two south of downtown, the Liberty docks at Long Wharf, well within walking distance of downtown attractions like Faneuil Hall and the Old North Church. Granted, this made getting to and from the conference more of a chore, but the ambiance of staying aboard a working schooner moored inside Boston Harbor more than made up for it.
Both of us being on the shorter side in height, the cabin (which included a two-person top bunk) proved an ideal fit for our compact frames. We also took advantage of the 30 percent discount on any cruise offered to anyone staying aboard.
Mind you, such accommodations are not without challenges, starting with the fact that your room effectively disappears for several hours each day (the dockside office will gladly hold any belongings you might want to access during that time). Also, with features like a common head (bathroom) and shower, the operation more closely resembles a hostel than a hotel.
While such arrangements should be carefully considered when planning a trip, especially if traveling on business, the experience will prove both memorable and affordable for the more adventurous traveler. And be sure to call ahead, as Liberty heads south every winter, to ply her trade in the Caribbean.
Prior to traveling to Seattle, I did some research to make the most of my non-work free time. I read out about an underground tour near Pioneer Square. The website made it sound lurid and sensationalist. I love lurid and sensationalist! Instead, I found myself learning about Seattle’s early history in a way that harkened back to one of my history professors. Wait, wait, hear me out. In college I had this great history professor who knew the best way to get us to learn was to make us laugh. I still remember the lecture about early explorers starving while crossing the Pacific. In fact that might be the only lecture I remember from college, because the lecture included the crucial question, “Why didn’t the fuckers fish?” (that verbatim question was also on the final). He taught fact and context deftly slipped into the stories and jokes and so does Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour.
The tour starts with a 10-15 minute introduction inside Doc Maynard’s Public House. Bill Speidel saw the area around Pioneer Square in decline and historic buildings being razed for parking lots and did something about it. His first tours not only educated people about the area and the richness of history and culture, but they also gave him access to a public who would help him preserve the area. He did indeed succeed in having the area named a historic district.
Chris was the tour guide for my group and he was fantastic. He took us in and out of buildings and the accessible sections of underground, telling the fascinating story of Seattle’s founding, the later fire, and the rebuilding of the city that led to the “underground.” Did you know that the term “skid row” refers to this section in Seattle? Logs were cut down on the hill and send sliding (skidding) down the steep grade to the waterfront. And as with all waterfronts, one finds the carnal triumvirate of booze, gambling, and whores. Hence, Skid Row’s awe-inspiring reputation now extends to cities without trees or hills and a hair metal band.
The tour starts in the shadow of Smith Tower, once the tallest building in Seattle. While that was interesting, what made my nerd-heart sing was learning that it was built by the man who founded the Smith-Premier Typewriter Company, which became the Smith-Corona Typewriter Company. I should have toured Smith Tower, but since I didn’t someone else should and tell me about it.
From there, we descended down just a flight of stairs to what was once the street level in Seattle. Seattle was founded at low tide, which was even more problematic than one might expect. Exploding toilets anyone? In 1889, a fire leveled 25 square blocks and gave Seattle the opportunity to rebuild. The city decided to re-grade the streets and build them up above the tidal flats, but the businesses in the area couldn’t wait for the city, so they went ahead and rebuilt. Once the streets were finished, the first floors were now basically underground.
After three subterranean spots, we wrapped up with a surprisingly respectful history lesson about a brothel owner, Madam Lou, who helped build the city. Not only that, she left her estate to the school system.
There is so much I am leaving out, so if you are in the area and have 75 minutes to learn while being entertained, you really should take the tour.
Bill Spiedel’s Underground Tour Address: 608 First Ave., Seattle, WA 98104 Phone: (206) 682-4646
Hours: April – September: Daily, 9 am-7 pm June – August: Daily on the hour 9am-7pm and these additional ½ hour times – 11:30am, 12:30pm, 1:30pm, 2:30pm, 3:30pm October – March: Daily, 11 am-6 pm