Nov 13, 2017

(Not Just) Electric Guitarist

In the mid-1980s I would often troll “Bambino” at the corner of Hindustan Park and Gariahat Road in search of new music that the record company may have found fit to send our way. The clerk at the counter, in anticipation of my usual question, would say “Nothing yet, new release expected next month”. It was during one of these forays that I encountered “Natural Elements – Shakti with John McLaughlin”. I’ve wondered about the title a lot, was there ever a Shakti without McLaughlin? At a Spring Fest audio/visual quiz, the quizmaster played a clip which was not music but the announcement at a concert. In his slightly nasal intonation, Zakir Hussain was saying “The next piece is called What Need Have I For This, What Need Have I For That, I Am Dancing……”. Some in the crowd did not wait for the end before blurting out “Shakti, Live at Southampton College, July 5, 1975”. That was the first major Shakti concert, a band formed after the founders Zakir and John did an impromptu session at Ali Akbar Khan’s house in California in 1973.  Over the years Shakti disbanded and then came back together as “Remember Shakti”. Even though some of the previous members had moved on, there was never ever a Shakti without John McLaughlin.

A few years after Natural Elements was released, Shakti made their way to Calcutta. The 16-year old me attended his first major concert at the Maidan with some friends. After injecting John M. into the Calcutta psyche, HMV then released Mahavishnu Orchestras “The Inner Mounting Flame” in India. Many of my friends did not like it. I did not appreciate it that much either (appreciate may be a strong term, given that I am not a musician, nor do I have any formal/informal training in music or musicology. Suffice to say that I did not dislike it but I also did not wear out the grooves of the LP I borrowed from a friend).

It was in college that some of my seniors, in particular two future architects, chose to fill in the gaps of my jazz education. I listened to more Mahavishnu, and I was also introduced to yet another avatar of McLaughlin. It was as one of the greats in THE guitar trio, playing the phenomenal concert “Friday Night in San Francisco”. If John had not been a part of Miles Davis ensemble, had not formed Mahavishnu or joined Shakti, his reputation as a jazz legend would have still been cemented purely on the basis of this one performance. He, along with Paco De Lucia and Al Di Meola, electrified the stage with their acoustic guitars.

Also in college, we listened with insatiable appetite to “Southampton College”.  “…I Am Dancing At The Feet Of My Lord, All Is Bliss, All Is Bliss”.

Fast forward to a few years later. I am in the US spending whatever money I could afford from my graduate stipend and then my salary at used book and music stores. I filled out my Mahavishnu collection (Birds of Fire, From Nothingness to Eternity, etc.), solo McLaughlins (Belo Horizonte, Electric Guitarist), more Guitar Trio albums and whatever Shakti came out with (researching while writing this, I see that there are so many more albums left that I can waste my money on). In the first half of the 90’s, I saw McLaughlin at a small cozy concert at the Regatta Bar in Boston. The music was very dense and obtuse to my ears and subsequently I remember very little of that concert including who he played with (it was a trio of guitar, bass and piano if I remember correctly). Later in that decade, he reunited with the other two guitar gods on a tour, including a stop at San Francisco 25 years later! This concert was not comparable to the original one, even the format was different. Each one played a solo set, did a duet with each of the others and then, in a short grand finale, all three played together. I don’t know if it was age, reputation, or record company restrictions that prevented them from re-creating the original. It was still a very good concert, the opening bars of Frevo Rasgado made your heart dance, but it lacked the scintillating energy of the original. I know, since I was there in the audience.

In 2017, John McLaughlin announced that he would retire from touring after a final set of shows in the US, including one at the Wilbur Theater in Boston. It was a fitting tribute to his life-long contribution to jazz music which he has helped amplify on so many world stages in various genres. These final shows focused on his work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the group he had formed at the urging of Miles Davis (“Miles was really forceful” John said at the concert) and named after the moniker given to John by his one-time guru Sri Chinmoy.  After an opening set by Jimmy Herring, John and his current band The 4th Dimension kicked off things with “Miles Beyond”. After a set of old and new music, they were joined by Herring and his band and proceeded to run through a Mahavishnu catalog. For me, it was a culmination of my devotion to the work of my hero who I have deeply admired since childhood, a long way from my first concert at 16.  Now at 50, I have to thank John again for the opportunity to be able to hear the music made by a band that had disbanded before I joined first grade, at what was the last of his live shows.

There are still many more albums to buy and listen to, and my stereo has been stuck on McLaughlin-related items since the concert. However, never else will we have the pleasure of seeing and hearing him play on his PRS twin-neck that he brought out on this tour. There were no overtones of a twilight of an ageing star in the show. As John said, he wanted to go out on a high note while he still had the chops and true to his word, he amazed the sold-out crowd of mostly 50- and 60-year olds. At some point there was an yell “I love you John, don’t retire!”.  It’s a good sentiment but I prefer the way he went out in style leaving an indelible impression.

Nov 8, 2014

For 25 straight years, winner of NPR's "Most likely to be cancelled !"

Tom Magliozzi, a co-host of Car Talk, died earlier this week. I have not listened to the show in more than a decade, other than in passing; the show itself stopped new broadcasts since 2012. The morning after he passed away, WBUR (where it all began) had a long remembrance during its morning show. I laughed all the while with a lump in my throat. Then the floodgates opened.

I can recall the one long period of my life when I listened to Car Talk religiously, I think it was Sunday evenings. I would usually be driving back to the Cape from friends North of Boston. Sometimes, I would even turn on the radio at home. It was somewhat of a dark point in my life and Car Talk was an extremely pleasant refuge.  I always knew the show was popular but only now do I realize that I was not the only lost soul who looked to the show for such relief. The connection that hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, made with the disembodied voices on the radio was phenomenal – here is what a fan said recently: These guys could have been reading the phone book and I'd still tune in. It's a tribute to them, especially because I am really not that interested in vehicle repair. But the show was so much more than that.  He gave me so much to laugh about!”

In a world of self-promotion and endless marketing, the Tappet Brothers were a refreshing contrast. They made fun of everyone, most of all themselves and took great delight in poking fun at their own success. I heard Tom recount that they started the show on a volunteer basis and eventually decided to ask WBUR for $50/week (a request that was immediately sanctioned). The brothers then looked at each other and said “Boy, we are in Fat City”. At this point, Tom dissolves into helpless laughter and he can’t even finish the story. On the show, many thoughts and anecdotes used to be left similarly suspended, overcome by what was the textbook example of infectious laughter. Even the dourest listener had no choice but to grin from ear to ear. Just by being, Tom (and Ray) delivered public radio from a stodginess that was a standing target of SNL skits and enhanced the popularity of radio in an era of strong competing influences. “Even though members of the Emily Dickinson Fan club smother the radio with their copy of Hope is a Thing with Feathers every time they hear us say it, this is NPR”. (Paraphrasing here, I don’t remember any specific sign-off but there are hundreds).

Farewell Tom Magliozzi. I hope you re-incarnate soon since the void left by the likes of you needs to be filled quickly. 

Jul 22, 2011

Spicy cooking

Whilst the world at large fretted about the solvency of Greece and the United States, were traumatized by the Mumbai blasts and crowed about the fall of Murdoch, my attention was drawn to the screaming headlines on Page 3 of the Arab Times: HOUSEMAID ARRESTED FOR RUINING SPONSOR's FAMILY THROUGH MAGIC.

Before I go on further, let me admit that the world at large was probably more focused on the break-up of J-Lo and Marc than any of the above.

The incident, reported by "agencies", involved an Asian housemaid who was detained by the police following a complaint by her Kuwaiti lord and master that "there was a high degree of confusion" in his house and the maid was likely doing black magic. Apparently, his children were walking around dazed and confused which was attributed to strange chanting and other magic being practiced in the kitchen (the deliciousness of the Gobi Manchurian was also attributed to the same).

In case any of you worldly nay-sayers have started snickering at this, let me assure you that the case is closed. It was reported that "during interrogation, the maid is said to have admitted to this act". She now awaits deportation (or will use black magic to beam herself back home, though the police have reportedly seized all her magic charms). Inshallah, the man's children will now no longer look dazed. Stay tuned.

Jun 28, 2011

With God on our side

He first called his son. In the boy’s time zone, school had not yet let out for the day so he left a voicemail. “I am leaving now son. It will be difficult to call the next few months so we’ll just do that Skype thing, okay. Be good at school and enjoy the ball game. Love you, bye!”

He then made a second call. This time, he did not need to leave a voicemail. He discussed mundane everyday things, offered some advice on how to get the computer up and running (“and if that does not work, call Dave”). He ended with “Don’t forget your medications, and remember to refill them when you run low. Awright, gotta go now, I’ll see you soon, dad”.

He hung-up and went back to horsing around with his buddies who were all being deployed to Bagram Air Force Base.

It’s a scene that Hollywood has used often with great success, but I found it to be even more effective without the dramatic pauses and the violins. Maybe it was the 3-D effect, since it happened in the seat next to mine on an airplane to Kuwait.

My other neighbor had trouble with his headphones. He had an old-fashioned one that did not work with the socket on his hand rest. My set was missing from my seat pocket and you cannot get an United airlines attendant to help you even if you offer a bribe. My first neighbor offered to share his airline headphones, since he had a personal one. When he took it out however, we found that the cord was frayed and on the verge of snapping. He grinned, displayed a gold cap. “War is hell, ain’t it?” he said.

A friend of mine thinks that everything reminds me of a song by Bob Dylan. I would like to keep that delusion alive, so here goes:

".....the reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don't count the dead
When God's on your side"

Sep 16, 2010

Weight, weight, don't tell me.

My state of denial defines my greed as refined epicureanism ! The truth occasionally finds it's way out of my subconscious when I struggle into clothes or feel enervated under the weight of too much food or drink, but I manage to shove it back in by bedtime. Of late, truth has been fighting back and forcing my brain to to ruminate on Ben Franklin's value of Temperance. My state of denial calls this Old Age !

So I ruminate: Franklin said - "Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation". Let's start with the latter. This is, at times, very necessary. However, those times are becoming fewer and further between with life's growing responsibilities and worries, though of course that presents exactly the sort of situation from which drinking is a refuge. Hmm, this is a tough one. Ruminate further...

The former actually makes sense, food coma is never desirable but it creeps upon you as you convince yourself that you are "just tasting" everything on the table or while thinking about starving children, you decide not to waste any food and stuff your face with the last three kebobs. However, moderation is possible, I think. What I shall do is convince my mind of the same by weighing myself every morning (when possible) and record it on a white board in my study. In short, allow my subconscious to plant a seed to trick my mind to accept reality. That's food for thought as I continue thinking about food.

Sep 3, 2010


Let me bring you songs from the wood…..”

It was a gut reaction. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explains that snap decisions are a result of a series of “thin-slicing” performed by our adaptive unconsciousness and that attempts to explain or decipher them are mostly doomed. Thus, all I have to say is that I suddenly decided to not leave my then 20-week pregnant wife alone for the weekend and told my friends that I would bail out of our re-union plans set in New Jersey.
My friends (bless their hearts) shuffled the logistics and moved the party up to Boston. I did leave my wife alone at home for the weekend, but remained within a half -hour drive. On Sunday afternoon, peering through heavy eyes, I bid my friends adieu and headed home. I was going to pick up my wife and then head out to watch a Jethro Tull concert at the Bank of America Pavilion in Boston. She had always wanted to see them after hearing my passionate tales about their entertaining shows (with very good music, to boot). Right before we headed out, she complained of “feeling not exactly right”. We decided to swing by the hospital on our way to the concert to have the nurse on duty check it out and give us the all-clear.
Things did not go as expected. Two seats in the second row stayed empty at the Pavilion that night. After an initial check-up, they decided to keep my wife at the hospital overnight for observations since they feared imminent danger of a very early pre-term birth. Although they downplayed it saying that they could keep issues at bay and resolve everything with a quick procedure the next day, things got progressively worse. Ultimately, our hospital said that they were not equipped to handle a 20 week baby and had us transferred to Tufts Medical Center which houses one of the premier NICUs in the world. Thus began a three month ordeal.
For a while, my wife was kept at bed rest continuously in the trendelenburg position. If you are wondering what that is (and I would be surprised if you were not), I suggest you google it. All I can say is that I wish it on no one. After a week or so, they finally discontinued that and moved her to a normal supine position. It was still a long, long time before they allowed her to leave the bed and be wheeled out of her room for anything other than a medical procedure. Six weeks later, they allowed her to go home (and be on bed-rest there) and it was not until the 30th week of her pregnancy did they clear her to walk again.

Let me bring you love from the fields

Poppies red and roses filled with summer rain

To heal the wound, to still the pain

That threatens again and again….”

At Tuft’s, I recall some awful Wednesdays. It might have been the day that signaled the start of a new week in the pregnancy cycle. A medical specialist, in particular I remember an Indian neo-natal surgeon, would walk us through the various nightmare scenarios that could happen if our child was born that week. The descriptions were cold, clinical, and usually very graphic. We were then given a few hours to decide and then inform the hospital of this "pre-decision". These usually involved whether (and at what point in the post-birth crisis management process) we would allow them to pull the plug since emotions would render decision-making impossible in the heat of the moment. I think this "Sophie's choice" scenario carried on till my wife was a point in her pregnancy where our child was out of the worst risk category, about 4 weeks after she was first admitted.
They say such things are life changing. You hear about people passing through crisis and how they react to it by opening their minds and hearts, diving into charity work, immersing in philanthropy – they hear the tree falling in the forest without being there. Alternately, some become reality TV stars. All I felt was irritability, impatience and bitterness. Four years have passed and I have held on to those feelings strongly. I badly want to slip that skin off like a snake, but have instead ended up like a snake that hisses and spits at the slightest non-provocation. Maybe one day.....
Anyway, back to everything Absolutely Jethro. On June 15, 2010, we were at what I consider a full circle of some sort. My wife and I took our healthy 3 -year old to see Ian Anderson and his cohorts at the same Bank of America Pavilion. Although lacking the usual antics of a Tull soiree, it was one of the finest Tull concerts I have seen, musically speaking. The set list was mostly the old folk-themed songs which they wove into long musical extravaganzas. My son ran around the big open Pavilion, had dinner and fidgeted through  the opening act of Procol Harum. When the sun went down and Mr. Anderson came out and started with “Nothing is Easy”, my son lay on my lap and watched the music through tired but transfixed eyes. Somewhere between “Pastime” and “Jack in the Green”, he slipped quietly into sleep, maybe when Ian sang “the mistlethrush is coming Jack, put out the light !!”. After we finished listening to “My God”, the first time I heard Tull play it live, we slowly left the concert pavilion to the strains of “Budapest” on stage behind us.

“Life's long celebration's here.

I'll toast you all in penny cheer.”

 A couple of links:

Jan 19, 2009

An audacity of Hope on our part ?

I was asked by friends if I am celebrating Obamania. The answer is No, but to be clear, there is certainly cause for celebration as the G W Bush era draws to a close. You could have put Dennis Kucinich and Joe the plumber as Prez and VP and that still would be a reason for a party. There are also other reasons to celebrate - it is a historic occasion. A somewhat-black American from Illinois will be sworn in as President right around the time of MLK's birthday. He will use the same Bible used by Lincoln. All this is bound to turn DC into some sort of a giant Woodstock for the politically liberal mass - a Dead concert minus the weed. Aretha will be on stage.

The question is - what will Barak do. What can he do, the challenge before him is stupendous and a Democratic majority in House and Senate is not likely to support his mandate blindly, if at all. They are, after all, politicians and in it for the power and the glory (not to mention tons of pork). We may be charmed by Obama but to look to him as the new Messiah is like hoping that Jerry Garcia could convince record labels and Ticketmaster to make music free. That is, in my mind, an audacity of hope.

The truth is that we all need to examine our lives and decide what we want for ourselves and our fellow-men. If we truly want the right thing, then let us all continue the grass root effort that Barak used to win the election and channel it towards movements that show public endorsement of actual projects which will strengthen education, energy conservation, efficiency, etc. Let the polls pressurize the pols to support Obama and here's hoping that his team comes through with their message of change.

If we don't care (I am describing myself here), let's just stick with the tax breaks, get some extra cash and watch the AIG execs tan themselves at Club Med.

Sep 28, 2008


The last time we moved, we settled on the house in summer 2001 and closed in October 2001. Imagine my consternation after 9/11. This time, we are not just buying, but selling as well in two weeks. I have so far turned a blind eye and deaf ear to all my portfolios, just hope that both our lender and that of my prospective buyer stay stable for another month. That being said, I am done with any more closings, its just a harbinger of upheavals in geopolitics and economics :-(