Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Never Can Say Goodbye

Sitting in a Mexican cafe and hearing the news that Michael Jackson was dead, my first reaction was disbelief. Just another silly rumor, there was no way that the King of Pop was dead. But stories from AP, Reuters and BBC were produced and I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. As Americans away from home, we stared blankly at each other, unable to digest how an American icon could be gone without warning. I arrived back and slowly absorbed the reality of Michael Jackson's death.

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Michael Jackson was like a neighborhood friend. His image, voice and moves were everywhere throughout my youth.No boy could be described as attractive unless he had a Michael Jackson 'fro. Nobody could be called a good dancer unless they had perfected the cool, precise, Michael Jackson spin. Anybody with the last name of Jackson automatically claimed a relation to Michael Jackson. Anybody who journeyed to Michael's nearby home state of Indiana always declared a Michael sighting or visit with the family. "ABC", Dancing Machine" and "I'll Be There" were on the soundtrack of every block party, sleepover and birthday celebration. By the time I was in my teens, Michael was as much a constant in my life as my best friends who lived across the street.

But you grow up and things change. People drift apart, they develop interests that you don't share. Michael emerged as a lost, confused soul. I always felt sorry for him, it's like he was pushed into the spotlight so early that he never had a chance. But there's no denying his brilliance. The nuance of his singing, the electricity of his dancing, the sparkle of his presence will live on.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Next Stop: Land of Ixchel

For the rest of the week, I'll be exploring the Land Of Ixchel (ee-shell)or Cozumel. Ixchel was the Mayan goddess of the moon, fertility, childbirth and weaving. Cozumel was her sacred island and the site of the San Gervasio shrine where every Mayan women was expected to make a pilgrimage at least once. I'll visit the San Gervasio ruins as well as check out the local Cozumel culture. Stay tuned for my posts next week.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Lowcountry Paradise

Covered with palmetto trees, hydrangeas and Lilly of the Valley, South Carolina resembles a swampy Garden of Eden. One of the best places to catch a glimpse of the state's natural beauty is at the National Historic Landmark of Brookgreen Gardens. Nestled between Myrtle Beach and Pawleys Island, the 9,200-acre outdoor museum boasts swamps, marshes,sculptures, fountains an aviary and a zoo. I had no idea how massive the place was until I arrived and was handed back my ticket because it's good for 7 consecutive days. You need a day to devote to just one of the half dozen areas so I chose the sculpture garden and the lowcountry zoo.

At the zoo filled with indigenous animals, we saw a red fox snuggled in a tree.

Eagles perched on a branch.

And a fountain decked with loons in flight.

The Huntington Sculpture Garden opened as the country's first public sculpture garden in 1931 and continues to display one of the most diverse collections of 1,200 works by 350 sculptors. The garden offers a broad range of figurative pieces, from bronze animals, to lowcountry icons like this depiction of a plantation worker.

As you would expect in a Garden of Eden, there's also lots of classical nakedness. I thought this piece with women draped in all different directions was the most intriguing work I witnessed.

More traditional Roman-influenced nudes were often highlighted, like this statue of an imposing couple.

This pool with Diana on the chase was one of my favorites.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Lyrical Leaps in Myrtle Beach

I love music and I love amusement parks. I've never seen these two loves come together quite as well as in the Freestyle Music Park. Formerly Hard Rock Amusement Park, it's 55 acres of music, roller coasters and fun. Myrtle Beach has a lot of amusement parks, from water parks, to a NASCAR playground but I enjoyed Freestyle the most, just because of the overall music theme. The rides, shows and park areas all reference some aspect of pop music.

The Time Machine is Freestyle's signature roller coaster, with a 155 foot lift and six inversions and loops. I didn't get any where near this monster but my daughter rode it 3 consecutive times. The highlight is that the tracks have five separate audio tracks that you can choose while riding-60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s.

I found it difficult to believe that riders would remember what tunes were playing as they whooshed through stomach-churning loops but my daughter reported hearing the Supremes for the 60s track, Michael Jackson for the 80s and Mariah Carey for the 90s.

The park is divided into different "lands," including Myrtle's Beach, Kids in America, Country USA and Across The Pond, with corresponding architecture and music.
As a big British Invasion fan, Across the Pond was a highlight for me. Strawberry Fields and Cream served ice cream and pastries with names like "Lucy in the Sky," that were lost on the young customers.

Then there was the requisite Double Decker bus with a London phone booth for good measure. Across the pond is also lined with shops selling Rolling Stone, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley (Bob first broke internationally across the pond in London) and Sex Pistols t-shirts.

There was even a Penny Lane Cafe complete with a Black Cab parked out front.

Homegrown music was also in the spotlight, with beautiful stained glass tributes to the Architect of Rock N' Roll, Little Richard.

As well as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

This cluster of geographical music group names also featured Berlin on the other side.

I loved spotting signs like this. Never knew rock, coffee and ice cream blended so well.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Frog and a Coconut Tree

I just couldn't resist. This is cultural enlightenment for all my readers who have never heard of Jimmy Buffett. He's a singer that relies on cheesey Caribbean references but this is an example where it works. You can't go wrong with steel pan playing Muppets. And for Cubano, this is the very best kind of kitsch.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Parrotheads and Sandlappers

So this is the thing. I have always been irritated by "Gulf and Western" singer Jimmy Buffett's broad stereotypes of the Caribbean. Palm trees and well-placed "yeah mon's" do not a culture make. Even though his music is acknowledged for its island escapism theme, the cheesy tropical rhythms and overly languid delivery just gets on my nerves. So it goes without saying that I never considered stepping foot in Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville restaurants. But there it was, the first item on my Myrtle Beach itinerary. It seems that Margaritaville is the anchor for the bustling Broadway on the Beach shopping district. And since the focus of my trip was family-friendly activities, Margaritaville apparently topped the list.

Here's the other thing. I love kitsch. Silly, tongue-in-cheek decor, childish and whimsical knick knacks, always make me smile. So when I was greeted by the swirling hurricane above (I thought it was a giant margarita since it was next to a giant blender) I knew I was bound for fun even if I had to listen to Jimmy Buffett tunes.

The place was packed with two- hour waits on a Monday night. And it wasn't tourists that jammed the spot, it was Sandlappers or native South Carolinians. Now what do Parrotheads (Jimmy Buffett fans) and Sandlappers have in common? It seems to be a love for a rowdy atmosphere and live music. The food at Margaritaville is mediocre at best, the real draw is the party theme.

There's a stage where groups perform pop classics, the hurricane that explodes with thunder and a forecast from the local meteorologist about a hurricane party warning and a giant screen that that flashes reggae videos and Jimmy Buffett performances.

I've never witnessed Parrothead behavior but when the video for "Margaritaville" played, I was granted the chance. It seems that the tune boasts rituals and accompaniments along the same line as Rocky Horror Picture Show. Women stand and wave for the "woman to blame" verse and the chorus of "searching for my lost shaker of salt" elicits deafening screams of "salt! salt! salt!"

My 12-year-old daughter was puzzled. The only thing she knew about Jimmy Buffett was that he sang "Caribbean Amphibian" (probably the only Buffett song I like) on Elmopalooza. She didn't get the Caribbean references that failed to connect with Buffett's Southern drawl and grizzly hippie appearance.
I don't either so I couldn't explain it to her.

What she most enjoyed were vintage Bob Marley videos of "One Love" and "Buffalo Soldier". She's heard the songs hundreds of times but never saw the footage of Bob singing them. Watching her eyes light up and sing along was worth all the corny Caribbean references and people wearing balloon parrot hats.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Next Stop: Myrtle Beach

I never knew that Myrtle Beach had more than endless beaches but apparently there are museums, zoos and theaters to compete with all the sand. The photo above is from Brookgreen Gardens, home of the world's first and largest sculpture garden as well a depository of Lowcountry history. I'll be diving into this other side of South Carolina for the week so look for posts on my Myrtle Beach discoveries this weekend.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Long Live The Queen of the Blues

The blues runs through my blood. It seeped in through the Mississippi cotton fields of my father and the New Orleans swamp land of my grandfather. It jumped out and grabbed me in Chicago blues clubs and never let go. Although the genre reveres and focuses on men and manhood, Koko Taylor snatched the spotlight with gutsy vocals and growls that few men matched. She was born to Memphis sharecroppers and scrubbed floors in Chicago houses until Willie Dixon heard her formidable contralto and urged her to record. He wrote her signature 1965 hit "Wang Dang Doodle," which pushed her to the forefront of the blues, where she remained for four decades straight. She won 29 music awards over her impressive career, including a Grammy and an NEA National Heritage Fellowship Award. What made Koko Taylor the Queen of the Blues was not just her voice but a regal, commanding spirit that forces your attention. The blues doesn't just represent pain and sorrow, but strength and the joy of living. Koko personified those characteristics. She died today at 80, from complications of gastrointestinal surgery. Her music and spirit live on as vividly as when she performed. The video below shows Koko performing last year at the Kennedy Center Honors. She honors Mississippi native Morgan Freeman but as you can see from Pete Townsend's face, she's really demonstrating the unending legacy of the blues. It's an appropriate display of her fierceness, commanding the stage at 79, singing a female version of the song popularized by Muddy Waters as an anthem to manhood.