"Amazing Grace" by Sydney Pollack (1972/2018)

I went trough a period of mild depression recently, caused by bad weather and my annual Autumn chest cold so without really paying attention to it, I went work-home-work-home for a few weeks and would not leave my bed, while poring rain outside howled outside my window. Nothing gave me any joy or pleasure and I just wanted to disappear under the bed cover and fade away to sleep. Than at certain point I realised this is not healthy anymore so I decided to treat myself with something nice and to cheer myself up, I bought a ticket for newest movie about Aretha Franklin. On the night of the screening I regretted that I have to go anywhere because it was pouring rain again but it turned out into magical evening. First of all, the audience was very excited and enthusiastic + it was obvious that everybody who came trough the wind and the rain really wanted to be there. I must admit that Dutch cinema audience is by far the most civilised I have ever encountered - they are polite, appreciative and at the end of the movie always respectfully wait until all the credits are ended (unlike in my own Croatia where stampede starts instantly and no one cares about the credits). Right before the main feature started, there was a trailer about the new biopic of Judy Garland and I was amused to hear man sitting next to me muttering "tramp" - it startled me initially but later I thought to myself, well yes, why pretending its otherwise, we can light the candles at her shrine and click our heels all we want but sad truth is that woman probably was needy pain in the neck and someone I would probably avoid in real life. 

And now to a main feature: almost 50 years ago Queen of Soul (who at that time was at the peak of her powers) decided to go back to her roots and show to the world that she never forgot where she started from - the project was called "Amazing Grace" and it was double LP album recorded completely live at Baptist Church in Los Angeles. It turned into massive hit and to this day is still the best selling gospel album of all times (a feat she was not able to top with its sequel from 1987.) but what most people were not aware is that simultaneously as the recording was made, celebrated director Sydney Pollack filmed the whole process and live documentary was planned - than inexplicably shelved, locked in some vaults and completely forgotten. To this day, it is not completely clear why exactly this exciting document was never released - some say it was a technical issue (syncing music with the footage), others it was Franklin herself who even hired lawyers to stop the release without her permission. In any case, it turned in a great blessing because just as Franklin passed away, the movie is here to remind her what a sensational and once-in-a-lifetime artist she was.

First of all, some impressions: we all know the music but just hearing it means we actually never saw what it looked like in church itself. What a spectacle! Church itself was surprisingly small place, nothing special actually and audience was not so large - in fact initially it all looked somehow underwhelming (kind of studio recording with a small audience included, technicians and electric wires all over the place) until the music starts. The Church choir walks in (very theatrically, in some kind of procession step) and than great lady herself - introduced by enthusiastic reverend James Cleveland and there is also a strikingly athletic choir director Alexander Hamilton who at the times seems ready to fly away with the music. We all know that Aretha sang like a dream but its a special privilege to see her live in a church which for her is a completely natural habitat - the moment when she starts to sing, with her eyes closed, the God is in the house and suddenly we forget the shabby surroundings, tin-foil costumes of the choir or silly hairstyles of the church ladies in the audience. The power of music was so strong and overwhelming that I could not sit still in my chair but was constantly jigging along and following the rhythm with my fingers, occasionally even tearing up and wondering why am I crying - after all, I have no connections with Baptist church, religion or that unflattering painting of white Jesus on the wall - somehow the music itself lifted everything above its surroundings and the final effect was sensational. At the end of the movie the audience wildly applauded and everybody was super excited & thrilled to witness such a wonderful posthumous gift from Franklin who herself would have been pleased. What strikes me as very interesting is that she was completely focused on music and very unlike diva we expected her to be - other singers (specially contemporary ones) would probably pose for the camera and avoid unflattering angles but Franklin was all business - she was here to record and all her attention was on piano, microphone and music itself. Caught in a moment, she sweated a lot and I wondered why no one brings her something to wipe it off, until her own father (famously handsome and charismatic minister C. L. Franklin) joins the audience and at one point gently wipes her face - the way Franklin looks at him is absolute admiration, she was clearly a daddy's girl. Gospel singer Clara Ward is also here, sitting next to him and her own mother, Gertrude - gospel star of earlier era - at one point gets so excited that she had to be restrained or else she would jump on the stage. Add to this the audience clearly enjoying the spectacle and joining into a wild church dance - its just a fantastic visual document that is absolutely not to be missed. 


"Live And More" by Donna Summer (1977)

Double LP live recording released when Donna Summer was at the peak of her career and if you ever wonder why Summer and not thousands of other artists, here is a proof: she was dazzlingly versatile, excellent singer, had tons of top-shelf material (largely written by herself), was not afraid to stretch artistically in various directions and was also lovely to look at. Considering that double LP albums were at the time considered compliments that recording industry used to bestow of biggest rock stars (see "Frampton Comes Alive! " or "Wings over America" for example) it was also indisputable evidence that much-maligned and criticised disco could not be ignored - Summer was selling these hits like there's no tomorrow and even cemented her fame in the movie screen. 

The concept of streamlined, continuous flow of songs weaving into each other was very typical of what Summer was doing at the time and majority of these hits were given glitzy treatment with some added oomph, they mostly appear slightly faster than original recordings. Its just mind-boggling how the playlist was made up by highlight after highlight, clearly this was someone extremely prolific and successful. Dazzled by her disco fame, most of the critics dismissed side B clearly designed as interval, where Summer pauses for a moment and goes Las Vegas with jazzy medley and few ballads - what majority saw as a flaw, I found welcome showcase for singer's versatility and point that she could sing anything no matter what genre (imagine if she did some songs from "Hair" where she originally started back in the 1960s). While the rest of the world focused on enormous phenomenon of "MacArthur Park" I thought that Gershwin/Ellington medley was phenomenal and actually very interesting step out of the box. 

Personally this album will always stay close to my heart, because it happened to be one of the first LPs I ever owned - when I bought it back in the day as a kid, I had no idea who Summer was and in fact could hardly distinguish her from Diana Ross (I was very young) but I listened it non stop, as you do when your whole music collection has only two titles. Re-visiting it again decades later, I am purring with pleasure for recognising every single note and applause, even though I am aware of its faults - it is still great fun and disco as a celebration of joy. Perhaps a bit more of variety would be more welcome but obviously disco was what audience wanted. Interesting note: Summer's sisters sang on backing vocals. 


Blast from the past: the street where I grew up

While browsing the web, I usually find tons of pictures where citizens of Zagreb affectionately praise the city and claim usual nonsense that is "prettiest city in the world" and "we could never live anywhere else". Now, I always take these bombastic statements with a pinch of salt, because I was simply born with a natural reserve when it comes to putting something above everything else - it all comes down to perspective, experience and subjectivity. Even as a kid in a primary school I refused to believe our sea is the prettiest/bluest/clearest which was the official line fed to us kids - surely people on the other side of the world think their sea is the best sea in the world. Same for Zagreb - it has interesting Gothic architecture and occasional pretty, forgotten corner (that somehow escaped commercialisation) but to proclaim it prettiest city in the world sounds a bit far-fetched - sorry folks, even though I was born in Zagreb, I have seen many other prettiest places and during my 15 years of work on cruise ships I have been all over the world. As a capitol it naturally towers above everything else in Croatia but if you are looking for the similar style of architecture & culture, Vienna and Prague are far more fascinating. 

The busiest pedestrian street is nowadays ultra-commercialised Tkalčićeva street which is now completely occupied by cafe bars, terraces and night life. It seems that people find it very romantic because it still preserves old houses from centuries ago - however, dear reader, I grew up there, in fact this is where I started walking. And believe me, there was nothing romantic about living in a shabby, creaking & derelict houses without proper bath and shared WC in a corridor. It would be wonderful if I could say yes, it was poor but full of heart - no, it was poor, dirty and full of prostitution, alcoholism and theft. Neighbours stole from each other and on one occasion someone even stole our WC seat. For the life of me I don't understand how can anybody romanticise about living here, when people lacked central heating and used wood for heat, everybody washed in basins and hardly anybody had even a washing machine. These photographs shows the street exactly the way I remember it - it was not pedestrian yet, there were some occasional cars parked, houses were falling apart and there was not a trace of future cafe terraces that eventually swallowed the whole area. Somehow I lived on three different addresses here so I know the street very well and was a witness when in the late 1980s cafe bars started to mushroom everywhere - I lived my solitary student life with windows closed to block the noise from outside, because drunkards were yelling deep into the night. I left the place as fast as I could once I got the opportunity and believe me, I never went back - even when I visit Zagreb, I stay away from this place because it brings back bad memories and find it very amusing that this - previously one of the dirtiest and poorest neighbourhoods - is now considered trendy and fun. Sorry but I lived there and find nothing romantic about it. And from the safe distance now, I can tell you that there are many, many cities far prettiest than Zagreb. To people who could "never live anywhere else" I suggest, go and travel, see the world. Places like picturesque Samobor and Varaždin are far prettier. 


"Ako Priđeš Bliže" by Zdravko Čolić (1977)

"Ako Priđeš Bliže" is quintessential Zdravko Čolić album and the one that really catapulted him to the status of superstar - if centuries from now, some aliens find one illustration of who Čolić was, this is the right example. The team behind it is very much the same one that created his previous debut "Ti i Ja" but by now everything fell in place and Kornelije Kovač masterminded all-hits, no-filler collection that genuinely sold truckloads in every corner of Yugoslavia - "Jugoton" knew the worth of 26 year old singer, because they cleverly added his poster in album cover and you can bet it graced countless walls at the time. Arsen Dedić, Kemal Monteno and even Bora Đorđević are amongst cooks and songs were uplifting, irresistible pop that ruled radio waves ever since - without a doubt this was singer's golden hour and the highlight of his career. Spectacular concert tour that followed is still remembered as first time we had real pop star filling stadiums, with backing dancers and all shebang - the documentary filmed during the tour is still fascinating and joy to watch for sheer enthusiasm and energy exploding from the stage. 

Some 40+ years after its release, I re-visited "Ako Priđeš Bliže" and was amused with the fact that I still know all the lyrics, even though I never actually had album back in the day - music was impossible to avoid because it played on the radio and TV non stop, to the point that it became soundtrack of an era. I mean, girls were cutting their wrists for Čolić and babies were named Zdravko all over the country - this was the first time we had genuine pop star beloved absolutely everywhere. It occurred to me that its interesting why exactly this guy and not someone else - after all, we had several other contenders with equally good voices (Boba Stefanović, Dalibor Brun, Zlatko Pejaković for example - they all started in rock bands and were more than capable to sing absolutely everything) but it seems it all boils down to material - because Čolić did not write his own songs, he depended on strong producer and was always good at following instructions - in a way, he was a producer's dream because he never pushed his own agenda or forced individuality (his singing is technically perfect but without a trace of distinctive idiosyncrasy) and perhaps this was the key of his music success, the fact that he was pleasant and easy to embrace by various generations. Some might say that his looks certainly didn't hurt album sales, but I disagree because music was so irresistible that survived decades and he still performs these songs today on sold-out concerts, long after his poster days. Best of all, this is pure pop and there is not a trace of unfortunate Balkan folk flirtations found in his later work. 


"Teško mi je zaboravit tebe" by Dušan Dančuo (1971)

The phenomenon of romantic gypsy music seems to be particularly beloved in Eastern Europe and tradition seems to go way back to times of Austrian-Hungarian empire when travelling musicians worked they way trough Vienna, Prague and Budapest - this type of music (often backed with violins and played to bleary-eyed audiences who cried in their beer) left its mark all over the place, including Croatia where "starogradska muzika" was somehow always perceived as more urban and distinct from traditional folk - nowadays we accept venerable Zvonko Bogdan as the king of this type of music, but long before Bogdan ever entered recording studio, there was already a towering figure of Dušan Dančuo who mellifluously crooned very much the same repertoire. Both men can be seen as continuation of old tradition that simply goes on under various disguises to this day.

Compared to Bogdan, Dančuo was technically superior singer - both men were gifted with seductive, soft voices but Dančuo was simply born with one of the most beautiful sounds and he used it very much like popular Italian singers of post WW2 generation (in fact, "Buongiorno Tristezza" was one of his earliest recordings from 1958.) Instead of going in that direction, like many of his contemporaries (Marko Novosel for example) Dančuo found his niche in music that combined Hungarian and Gypsy elements and was hugely popular all over Yugoslavia at the time. During 1960s he released three volumes of EPs titled "Popular romances" with songs of mostly Hungarian background - all of them are collected on this 1971. LP which serves as compilation and recapitulation of his work up to that point. At that time concept of LP abum was still new for "Jugoton" where they preferred playing safe and albums were mainly compilations of previously released singles. Dančuo will of course, continue for decades in very much same style, but today his work seems to have been little obscured which is a pity because he was really a great artist and important link between pre-WW2 tradition and later success of Bogdan and his followers. 


Armistead Maupin continued (but not for long)

So I continued with "More Tales of the City" and "Further Tales of the City" continuously wondering how is it possible that I had actually read these novels but completely forgot about them, and now suddenly I remember why I stop reading the saga. First two parts are focused on the same list of characters, all residents of colourful house on 28 Barbary Lane (Mary Ann, landlady Anna Madrigal, Mona, Brian, Michael, etc) and how they all intermingle and their lives re connected one way or the other - but as I started the third part, author suddenly decided to fast forward few years and now we are in the present time where everything is different, characters are re-arranged, paired differently and in fact focus is actually not on them at all but on some new (super irritating) characters. I was so confused that I even went on line wondering have I missed one novel somewhere in the middle - maybe there was another sequel that would explain how & why we came to this point? - no, Maupin simply decided to skip few years and now we are here, with familiar old characters being reduced to cameos and pushed in the background while story is about other people and some silly thriller plot. Needless to say, I am not enjoying this third part at all and having incredibly difficult time going trough it, seems like it takes me double amount of time to read this novel, where previous two just went so smoothly. Apparently there are six more sequels but to be honest at this point I am not so enthusiastic about it anymore and will definitely stop here. Just as I did the first time around. 


"Homo Volans" by Arsen Dedić (1973)

Ambitious and somewhat sprawling double LP album where 1960s romantic balladeer tries to spread his wings and try some different subjects - commendable decision and definitely artistic statement, but here is where Arsen Dedić evolved into cult artist and perhaps lost his commercial mass appeal. If during previous decade he was very much beloved, popular and even poster boy for certain generation of girls, now he moved away from romantic "boy/girl" songs and was obviously ready to explore other pastures. Even though "Homo Volans" have its share of romantic ballads, now he also sings about lonely life of quiet tenant, small gardens of suburban houses, nomadic life of musicians and to top it all, there is also a very witty & humorous ditty about relationship where food replaced the passion. 

The title "Homo Volans" is a nod to 17th century bishop from Šibenik (artist's birthplace) who is remembered as probable inventor of parachute (however, Leonardo da Vinci was there before him) - this already gives you some idea about Dedić's perspective and erudition which has almost nothing in common with the rest of popular mainstream entertainers who graced TV shows in the early 1970s. This brought a lot of adversity from large audiences who now found singer too serious for popular radio waves and from now on he will be supported by small but passionate following, where previous decade he enjoyed actual conventional appeal. Dedić will continue on, specially in demand as a songwriter for other artists, but his own discography will be an acquired taste. 

Personally, it took me some time and patience to warm up to "Homo Volans", probably because its cinematic atmosphere is a bit removed from singer's previous romantic repertoire and music recorded here often borders on atonal - creepy, disturbing strings and somber subjects are not exactly easy listening, while singer's declamatory style ("death, death, DEATH!") is not something you sing along. Brave experiment, but it might test listener's patience. 


"Dawn Upshaw Sings Rodgers & Hart" by Dawn Upshaw (1996)

At the time when "I Wish It So" was released, I lived in UK and clearly remember how much critics praised that album and lovely American soprano Dawn Upshaw who highlighted repertoire of Broadway composers. In fact, her concert in Royal Albert Hall might have been my very first visit to that place. (I was very young and didn't know anybody to go with me so I just went by myself and had a great time) It wasn't too long after that when she came up with a sequel, this time a songbook by Richard Rodgers and his lyricist Lorenz Hart

In some ways, it was perhaps even better than its predecessor (for one thing, her voice was not overwhelmed with huge orchestra) but it lacked the surprise effect from the first time around - now we knew that sparkling voice behind celebrated recordings by Donizetti, Mozart, Mahler and Debussy (not to mention unforgettable ""Symphony of Sorrowful Songs") was also capable of Broadway confectionery and my initial reaction was that this was quite predictable step. As much as I enjoyed the recording, I kind of hoped this will not become artistic cul-de-sac where performer gets pigeonholed in a particular box - soprano singing popular songs - Upshaw herself must have been aware of this because she quickly moved on to other things and finished the trilogy with album tribute to Vernon Duke

"Dawn Upshaw Sings Rodgers & Hart" is nevertheless a very enjoyable experience - how can it be different with a songs beloved as "Manhattan", "Sing For Your Supper" and "Ev'ry Sunday Afternoon" where that silvery voice parts the clouds. This time around orchestration is less intrusive and at one point Upshaw is even joined by special guest Audra McDonald whose voice sounds extremely similar to hers, its almost as singer is duetting with herself. Its very uplifting collection, done with utmost style and care, I dare listener not to hum along. 


Concert: Yola in Paradiso Club, Amsterdam 28.08.2019

On a lighter note, I wanted to mention here a concert that I recently enjoyed, birthday gift from an old friend who was very thoughtful and correctly guessed this is something that might appeal to me. Yola (real name Yolanda Quartey) is up-and-coming British soul singer who has recently released her very first solo album "Walk Through Fire" and a hit single, glorious "Faraway Look" immediately caught my attention so off we went to "Paradiso" club here in Amsterdam - my very first time there, since apparently I was always visiting other music temples like Koncertgebouw, National Opera House and famous Royal Theater Carré, practically everything but pop-oriented Paradiso and I was pleasantly surprised with its nice atmosphere, acoustics and enthusiastic, unpretentious audience. 

Yola is absolutely charming girl - right now she is still at the crossroads, not really a huge superstar so this small, intimate club performance was just perfect to present who she is and what her music identity is. The album, recorded in Nashville, is appealing mix of soul with country influences and audience lapped it up, it looks like locals really love outsized personalities - Yola is definitely one, since she is unabashedly, unrepentantly extrovert girl with playful streak, clearly enjoying the attention and adoration of the public so clearly showering her with affection. This might be the first time that I went to a concert of someone I am not really familiar with - after all we knew just one hit single and "Faraway Look"  is actually not really representative of who she is musically - but we both enjoyed the evening immensely, mostly because Yola herself was so happy with response she got from the audience. Her music is a robust combination of soul and country, with endearing chatter between the songs (she seems like a genuine person, kind of friend who just happened to be on a stage under the spotlight) and backing musicians were also very, very good. In fact, this might be the very first time I have seen pedal steel guitar in real life - it has a very recognisable sound and its interesting that the instrument was initially connected with Hawaiian music before it became trademark of American country music. 

The energy really build up towards the very end where Yola performed several songs as encore - not her own, but her favourites: its impossible not to love singer who sings "Big Yellow Taxi" and Spanish Harlem" out of sheer joy and love for music. We left Paradiso drenched in sweat and excited, it was excellent evening and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Big Five-O

So I turned 50 years yesterday and now I am officially middle aged.
To my biggest surprise, I don't really feel it - except occasionally in the morning or if I am sitting too long at computer - in fact, perhaps I am in a better place mentally, spiritually and physically than a decade ago. I have managed to turn my dream into reality and re-located to another country where I wanted to be, building my new life from a scratch, at the age where most of my friends back home think about retirement. The strength, the energy, the intensity is still here + I am healthy so not much difference from before, except that maturity has given me slightly different perspective and I don't really crave company as I used to do when I was younger. It also could be that all those years of working on cruise ships and having to deal with lack of privacy made me into solitary person who loves his own space above anything else but maybe this is just natural process common to everybody. 

I got a wonderful surprise present - famous Viennese cake delivered to my doorstep directly from Vienna with a lovely note + few other things. I have spent the day exactly the way I wanted - without big fuss, initially I wanted simply to treat myself with a lunch in a restaurant and to celebrate it quietly, than changed my mind and ended up drinking with a good friend until we were both pleasantly tipsy - but what surprised me the most was complete lack of attention from my numerous virtual friends on Facebook - for many years I was always very careful to send a message to each and every person on the day of their Birthdays, no matter how casual our acquaintance might be, but now on this very special day when I turned 50, I got a message from exactly two and a half people. Hm. That was a bit cold shower and it made me re-think the whole subject of virtual world, virtual friendships and the enormous time I spent on the Internet for what? For exchanging silly jokes, pictures and spiritual messages that basically mean nothing. Perhaps its good that I had this realisation so from now I won't have expectations that these things are serious or meaningful, since they are not. Obviously nothing can replace the real world and this is all that matters. 

Here's to another 50. 

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" by Quentin Tarantino (2019)

I still remember the thrill of watching my very first Quentin Tarantino movie, fantastic "Pulp Fiction" many years ago - it was a explosion of adrenaline, a work of over-excited movie geek and I loved every second of it (& played its soundtrack on the radio where I had worked as DJ). However, his subsequent work failed to excite me - very quickly I got tired of cartoonish violence and one dimensional characters and I just didn't find all this brutality entertaining. In fact, I even skipped completely his 2015. movie "The Hateful Eight" because I wasn't in the mood for more blood spurting all over the big screen. Apparently, everything I loved two decades ago about "Pulp Fiction" somehow became predictable and perhaps I am not the same person anyway. So this time I approached latest Tarantino movie with some caution.

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" might be my second-favourite Tarantino movie ever. 
It was overlong - three meandering hours, with occasional flash of genius and very,very gripping finale - but still way too long for me to genuinely enjoy without glancing at the watch. But I found myself talking about it and discussing it long after I have seen it so I guess it did left an impression after all. This time Tarantino focused on late 1960s when hippie movement, piece & love era was suddenly destroyed when drugged followers of cult leader Charles Manson massacred actress Sharon Tate and all her guest in the house at Cielo Drive. From that moment, people didn't leave the doors open and fear moved to Los Angeles - Tarantino has Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt next door to the place where murders happened and in his re-imagining of the story, they are the ones dealing with Manson Family. Without spoiling the ending, I must say that it all ends in a typical Tarantino bloodbath but not in a way we expected (or what actually happened). In fact, some teenagers sitting in a cinema next to me were giggling all the way trough, not knowing or understanding that Tarantino describes something that actually happened in real life - they were too young to actually remember Sharon Tate. 

The movie has a cast of thousands, with a feeling that Tarantino included every acquaintance, neighbour and a friend he ever met - critics praise came by Al Pacino but I don't see why this particular actor instead of any other. On the other hand, some new faces were excellent, like child actress Julia Butters, intense Margaret Qualley as dangerous hitchhiker or Dakota Fanning as her lethal red-haired Manson family buddy. Scenes at Spahn Ranch where drugged hippies set their commune on a land of blind owner were genuinely spooky and menacing - here Tarantino approached level of danger not unlike his famous predecessor Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, this is the first time I could tell Tarantino is not a young, nerdy geek he used to be - this time he worked very carefully on pacing and characterisation, reaching certain level of maturity that is interesting to note. Initially I thought it was flawed masterpiece but now I think it might not be flawed at all. 


"Tales of the City" by Armistead Maupin (1978)

After surprisingly dry and technical previous book by otherwise favourite Graham Hancock, the time has come to break away from science, cosmos, ancient civilisations and aliens - now I needed good, old fashioned story where each chapter leads to another, where pages are turning by themselves. Before I turned on to my virtual library that by now has more than 1 700 titles (and the whole process of browsing already becomes tedious), I have mentioned "Tales of the City" to a good friend who just pulled it off from his bookshelf so I ended up with a real, physical book as opposed to something digital and immediately discovered how inconvenient it is to lie in a bed nibbling on snacks with a book in my hand (computer kind of makes it easier). Balancing the book, chocolate and earphones, trying not to leave choco fingerprints everywhere, it was a bit difficult and I never imagined that I would come to point where I am so used to digital books that holding the real thing in my hands will be a problem. 

The most interesting thing is - I have actually read "Tales of the City" many years ago but I don't remember a thing, except the title. Which brings me to conclusion that basically all I remember from the books I have read during my lifetime are impressions - "good, bad, exciting, boring, trash, guilty pleasure, etc" - but for the life of me I genuinely don't really remember the books themselves, their characters and plots. The explanation for this might be everything - from the sheer immensity of the titles I have read to the fact that our brain perhaps stores new information's and erase the old ones (or I simply have Alzheimer) - but its a bit alarming that I am aware just of the titles and the general feeling, instead of actual stories. I can look at the books in my collection and recognising that yes, I have read them all, but if I start reading them again, it is very possible that now they would affect me differently, because I am not the same person who read them years ago. And this is why re-visiting some old favourites is such an interesting experience. 

"Tales of the City" was initially published as a feuilleton, serial supplement attached to San Francisco Chronicle - in itself, this is a wonderful continuation of literary tradition where authors like Charles Dickens, Eugène Sue or Alexandre Dumas were thrilling the audiences each week with new chapters and these series were so massively popular that people on the streets discussed and talked about adventures of little Nell, Rodolphe and The Count of Monte Cristo. All of these, now famously classics had a humble beginnings as magazine serials, just like "Tales of the City" and they all had one thing in common - specific, story focused plots that avoided any excessive descriptions and are simply storytelling with exciting cliffhanger endings that motivate readers to continue reading the next chapter. (Nowadays we see cliffhangers in TV soap operas) I should also mention other honourable magazine serials like Sherlock Holmes, The Moonstone and Uncle Tom's Cabin. In my own Croatia we had immensely popular magazine serial "Grička vještica" ("The Witch from Grič") that dealt with dark days of the witch-hunts in Central Europe and this was definitely one of the guilty pleasures of my childhood, probably one of the main reasons why I eventually became a book lover. So simply because of its style of writing, "Tales of the City" is from the start immensely readable and impossible to put down ("unputdownable" is a perfect description). 

I have just started yesterday and already gulped half of the book - where with Graham Hancock I had to be patient, focus on his meandering about measurements and calculations, how the the top of this megalith aligns with the solstice and constant repeating of the same ideas from chapter to chapter, here the pages were turning by themselves. Not unlike some delicious soap opera, "Tales of the City" weaves exciting story about citizens of 1970s San Francisco and how, one way or the other, their lives are all connected - I am taking the book with me to work today and no doubt I will finish it until end of the day.


"Ciganska Noć" by Nada Knežević (1961)

Serbian singer Nada Knežević enjoyed great reputation as the most prominent female Jazz singer in post-WW2 Yugoslavia and I even remember my parents praising her as one of the best vocalists around. Unfortunately, local Jazz scene had fairly limited appeal and majority of musicians often switched gears and ventured in pop music - perfect example is backing vocal group, excellent Vokalni Ansambl Predraga Ivanovića utilised here as anonymous studio quartet. 

For a while in the early 1960s, Serbian PGP RTB was actually leading recording company (along with Jugoton based in Zagreb) and they have released some truly magnificent pop albums, this one being one of them - impeccably produced and arranged, they are all without exception fascinating glimpse in a than current pop scene where locals tried their best to emulate high standards of international production. Foreigners might consider this exotic world "behind Iron Curtain" but artists were generally inspired and no less talented compared to their international counterparts - if not for geographical accident, its easy to imagine someone like Knežević performing on the stage of than very popular San Remo. 
The only problem I have with this album is that is very tame - probably reflection of the times, when all these singers were taught to be extremely undistinguishable from each other and as festival compilations can attest, strict juries that controlled who can appear on radio/TV/festivals guarded and restricted any individuality. God forbid that anybody sticked out too much from the mainstream, that was not allowed. So the whole generation of pop pioneers sounded as cloned cookie cutters, bland and non-threatening. It took one more decade until in the 1970s artists were allowed to be idiosyncratic and particular. 

Sadly, there is no trace of Jazz here - Knežević enraptured her concert audiences with capable renditions of songs by Ella or Sarah, but in recording studio her output was limited to lightweight pop music that harked back at previous decade. Judging by this album, the only genuine album she have ever released (not counting two compilations), lady was a capable pop singer with a nice, chirpy and crooning voice but ditties like "Davy Crocket" or covers of Italian, French and American hits don't really point at particular connection to Jazz. My guess is that she thrived on live concerts but was sadly underused in recording studios. 


"America Before: The Key to Earth's Lost Civilisation" by Graham Hancock

Omnivorous reader that I am, after Carl Sagan I have switched to something else completely, namely my old favourite Graham Hancock whom I followed and recommended to everybody for many years now. Hancock is very enthusiastic researcher, mainly focused on ancient civilisations and so far his books were usually completely ignored by scientists but very popular with masses curious about another possibilities and theories - his best seller was "Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth's Lost Civilisation " which I bought back in the 1990s and still love, however my favourite must be "Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind" for the sheer madness and scope of various ideas connected into one book. Hancock had a serious health scare recently so I'm glad that he has recovered and now there is a new book about possibility of ancient civilisations in Americas, long before Europeans ever knew about the place.

The premise is very interesting - contrary to formally accepted theory that Homo Sapiens roamed every continent but not Americas (where people came eventually via Bering strait while it was frozen) new archaeological evidence suggests that people indeed lived in a "New World" for thousands of years and traces of DNA & all sorts of interesting things point that perhaps there was a really ancient society there that has nothing to do with newcomers from the North. So far, so good - but than, to my biggest surprise Hancock really gets into all sorts of technical details and the book becomes so darn complicated and dry that I eventually found myself skipping the whole chapters. Instead following the narrative, page after page Hancock goes for calculations and measurements which for the first time struck me as unnecessary - instead of pointing an angry finger at academic society that shuns authors like himself, he could have simply focus on the story. Alas, seems like he has a very old grudge to bear and feel the need to prove he was right all along - now, to us, his readers, this is like preaching to the choir. We read him, because we love his ideas. But being angry at this or that scientist, page after page, chapter after chapter pointing how wrong and deluded they were, well its simply starts to become repetitive. So with deep regret, I am now (for the first time) reading Graham Hancock book simply because I want to finish what I started but not with excitement or pleasure, like before. I still love Hancock and I believe he is probably too emotional to distance himself from a objective, clear-eyed scientists who accept only proofs instead of theories - the world needs Don Quixotes like him. Strangely, I found this book my least favourite from all of his work, because of above mentioned. 


"Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Sings Operetta" by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1959)

On completely opposite side of the spectrum from her celebrated recordings of "Four Last Songs", these bubbly, sparkling bonbons culled from various Viennese operettas present magnificent versatility of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf who could apparently sing everything, from the darkest despair of "A German Requiem" to staggeringly melancholic songs by Richard Strauss or these pretty, fluffy confectionery. Do not forget that her singing teacher was celebrated 1920s star Maria Ivogün who herself recorded many popular waltzes and her lessons in poise and sophistication stayed with Schwarzkopf for the rest of her life - impeccably prepared and serious, she would bring the utmost commitment to everything she approached. 

The apparently omnipotent, silvery voice was capable of everything, in this case of sparkling in dazzlingly melodious hits from bygone era - handpicked from various operettas and different composers, this record almost sounds like "the best of" operetta genre. In fact, its so close to perfection that I must admit that to my ears, every other female singer approaching this material always pales when compared to this recording. Franz Lehár and Johann Strauss Jr. are just some of composers represented here, lovingly orchestrated and arranged by conductor Otto Ackermann and Schwarzkopf is in top form. This is one of the very few albums by Schwarzkopf that are constantly in the print and deservedly so.