My gig at the World Trade Center, remembering September 11

Looking back on September 11, 2001, I know I am not the first to think of it as a catastrophic tragedy comparable to the Sack of Rome in the 16th century. But, today, as I reminisce about the gigs I played at The Greatest Bar on Earth — 1 World Trade Center, NY NY 10048, on the top floor of the north tower — I realize that, like the Sack of Rome, the tragedy of 9/11 marks a cultural watershed: it’s as if our frenetic quest to document our lives through digital images and information began after September 2001 (in the same way that art historians and literary scholars point to the Sack of Rome as a cultural turning point, when there was an overarching shift in our self-awareness).

And so I dug up some old photos and fliers from my pre-9/11 world when my band (above) was still called Les Sans Culottes (today Nous Non Plus).

Back then, we played at The Greatest Bar on Earth nearly once a month.

Remember the World Famous Pontani Sisters? We did a lot of shows there together, with the Pontanis on stage with us. “Wear go-go boots and a miniskirt and get in free!” That pretty much sums up the spirit of those days in New York. We played some wild shows back then.

Those were wild, fun years in my life, when I was still in my early thirties and had moved to NYC just a few years previously. Back then, my day gig was writing about wine for La Cucina Italiana. The band played roughly 50 gigs a year in NYC, where we had a great following. It was a super fun time (look at the other bands that were playing the Bowery Ballroom, above, where we often were the headliners). Seems like a lifetime ago now. It was…

On my September 11, I awoke in Brooklyn and learned that something had happened — although I didn’t know yet what — when I called a colleague in TriBeCa to confirm a 9 a.m. morning meeting. I didn’t have a TV back then. And so I tuned in NPR on WNYC on my Mac over the internet. As soon as what was happening sunk in, I picked up the phone and called my mother who was still sleeping in California, three hours behind NYC time.

“Mom, sorry to wake you.”

“That’s okay, honey.”

“Something’s happened in New York. Something bad. I’m not going to be able to call you later. But I’m calling to let you know that I’m okay.”

“Okay, honey. Thanks for calling.”

She hung up and fell back asleep. The whole world had changed.

By the end of the day, singed shards of paper, business documents, rained gently down on my neighborhood in Park Slope, fluttering as they fell back to earth. I’ll never forget that image.

I was very lucky that I didn’t head into the city that day. I would have been on the 2 or 3 train, passing under the WTC.

G-d bless all the people who suffered and lost and gave their lives that day.

Our love song to Berlusconi: Bunga Bunga

Friends, wine lovers, and fellow rockers: if you’re not already following my band Nous Non Plus on Twitter, I’d be greatly obliged if you would follow. Thank you!

Earlier this week, I got a call from the A&R dude at our record company to write some copy about the first single, “Bunga Bunga,” to be released from our upcoming full-length album, Freudian Slip (in stores October 11). Usually Jean-Luc writes the copy for press releases etc., but in the light of my Italophilia, they asked me to take this one.

Yesterday, we found out that the video and the song will be hitting ITunes on September 13. I can’t share the song or the video just yet but here’s what I wrote, together with one of my favorite photos of Berlusca.

Bunga Bunga: Italian (and now international) slang for sex party, political corruption, and moral bankruptcy, probably from a European onomatopoeic approximation of the beating of drums (cfr. “bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t wanna leave the Congo,” a line from the song “Civilization” as performed by the Andrew Sisters and Danny Kaye); also used to denote a dance craze created by the faux French rock band Nous Non Plus on their 2011 album Freudian Slip.

The story behind Nous Non Plus’ “Bunga Bunga” (Freudian Slip, Aeronaut, 2011).

“Silvio [Berlusconi] told me that he’d copied that expression — Bunga Bunga — from [Colonel Muammar El] Qaddafi,” says former pole dancer Ruby Rubacuore (Ruby the Heart Stealer aka Karima El Mahroug, a native of Morocco), “it’s a rite of his African harem.”

Today, Italy’s sitting prime minister stands accused of paying Ruby for sex while she was still a minor (she recently turned 18) and could face up to 3 years behind bars. In Italy, consensual sex is legal at 14 years of age but it’s illegal to pay for sex with a minor.

Since the Rubygate scandal broke in early 2011, the expression Bunga Bunga has become synonymous with Berlusconi’s legendary sex parties, held in his villa outside Milan. And as Italy and the rest of Western Civilization slide into seemingly inevitable decline, Bunga Bunga resonates with Europeans and their trans-Atlantic counterparts as a metaphor for the moral bankruptcy of the European Establishment. The sex-for-hire charge is the latest in a long series of indictments leveled at Berlusconi for tax evasion and bribery. He has never been convicted.

It’s unlikely that Berlusconi’s (formerly) close friend and confidant Qaddafi whispered Bunga Bunga into the prime minister’s ear. In fact, as the Atlantic Monthly recently reported, the expression was probably first uttered by “Berlusca” and his countrymen as a racial epithet mocking the tide of north African immigrants who have settled in Italy. It’s hardly a surprise that the prime minister, infamous for his greed and hedonist excesses, proudly uses the notion of Bunga Bunga in the art of seduction. He is well known for his overt racism and his myriad racial gaffes (when Obama was elected as president of the U.S., Berlusconi noted, “I like him. He’s handsome and tanned”).

In the band’s homage to the Motown classic “Dancing in the Streets,” singer Céline Dijon brilliantly weaves together the world’s capitals, including some you might not expect, reminding the listener with each chorus that on fait le Bunga Bunga (everyone is doing the Bunga Bunga). And from the opening stanza, it’s clear that Dijon’s ingenious conceit is laden with social and political subtext and allusions to current events:

Milan ou Tripoli
Vilnius ou Benghazi
Paris, Moscou on fait le Bunga Bunga

The song’s pulsing sequenced drums (created by Julien Galner of Paris-based electronica band Château Marmount) recall the alcohol-fueled discotheques of Europe and the drum beat of Mother Africa. And its anthemic chorus is a battle cry for disenfranchised and disillusioned youth across the world.

Nous Non Plus forever…

Björn Türoque emailed me the photo above last night after he emceed the 2011 Air Guitar Championship regional finals in Chicago at the Double Door (he took the photo in the men’s room). We played there about 5 years ago, touring in support of our first album under the new name.

You probably already know the story of how and why we changed the name of our band to Nous Non Plus (and if you don’t, here’s the link).

We’re going to begin mixing our new album week after next and our record label is talking about a November release. I can’t wait: it’s our best record yet…


Boudin balls and Brunello (and a Ringo Starr anecdote)

In case yall don’t know what boudin balls are, yall don’t know what you are missing!

Boudin balls are a specialty of Cajun cuisine: you form balls using uncased boudin (pork and rice sausage, commonly found in Louisiana and East Texas where Tracie P grew up) and then you dredge in flour and cornmeal and then you fry.

For Easter this year, Pam brought steaming-hot, freshly fried boudin balls over to Mrs. and Rev. B’s house (she lives just a few blocks away). I paired with an 06 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione that I’d been saving for the occasion. I wrote about it over at the Houston Press, the Houston alternative rag, where I am now a regular contributor on wine. Here’s the link. Fun stuff…

Speaking of Easter, what Easter celebration would it be without memaw B’s deviled eggs?! Man, they’d be worth the drive to from Austin to Orange alone! Love that stuff! Also excellent with the Brunello, where the acidity and tannin the wine cut through the fattiness of the filling like a Bowie knife!

Speaking of balls, I am reminded of something I once heard Ringo Starr say. It was back in 2003 and the French band was asked to open for Ringo at the now defunct Bottom Line in the Village. (You can imagine how thrilled I was to get to do this! It was an amazing experience. Nora Jones — at the height of her fame — also appeared with Ringo that night. Incredible!)

After sound check, Ringo was totally cool and signed autographs for all the folks who managed to make it in through the extremely tight-security (I got to be there because we sound checked after Ringo’s band). At one point, this dude brought him a baseball and asked him to sign it. To which Ringo said, “I’ll sign just about anything, but I don’t sign balls.”

So, there you go…

Remembering September 11…

Above: This shot is from Arlene’s Grocery in Lower Manhattan but that’s pretty much what I and the French band looked like in 2001, when we used to perform regularly at The Greatest Bar on Earth (Windows on the World) in the north tower of the World Trade Center.

“There’s no fucking meeting today,” said the French voice on the other end of the line. “Turn on the news.” It was 9:00 a.m. and I was heading out the door from my apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn to a 9:30 a.m. meeting with a client on Desbrosses Street in TriBeCa. Thank goodness I didn’t get on the 2 train. I’m not sure if the second plane had crashed at that point but by the time I was able to tune into WNYC on my Mac (I didn’t own a television then), the south tower had been hit as well.

I picked up the phone and called my mother in California. She was still asleep. “Something’s happened, mom,” I told her. “You won’t be able to reach me today but I’m calling to let you know I’m okay.”

“Thanks for calling, honey,” she said yawning. She went back to sleep and would only learn what had happened when she woke up. By that time, my cellphone (my only phone) no longer worked.

My upstairs neighbor and landlord Janet knocked at my door. She was in tears and hysterical. She asked me to sit with her in her living room until her husband and son could make it home. I did.

Later in the day, singed pieces of paper — from all sorts of documents — gently rained down on our neighborhood. All of the fire fighters from our local fire station — just a few blocks away — perished in the tragedy. In the days that followed, we learned that some of the terrorists had resided just a few blocks from the house where I lived. I passed in front of their mosque nearly every day on my way to the YWCA gym where I had a membership. On my way home from my workout, I would often buy falafel at the deli next door on Atlantic Avenue.

All of these memories flooded into my mind last night when I came home from a food and wine event in downtown Austin and Tracie P had the TV on: “President Obama is going to make an announcement,” she said. Osama bin Laden was dead.

Between 1998 and 2001, the French band (above) performed once a month at The Greatest Bar on Earth (Windows on the World) in the north tower of the World Trade Center. Burlesque was the new fashion in hipster circles and we often played with The Pontani Sisters, who danced on stage as we played. Giuliani was mayor and you could still smoke cigarettes (and pot) in NYC nightclubs.

When I finally made it back into the city to visit my client, Desbrosses Street was closed to the public but the police let me through because I had business to conduct there. The staff in my clients office were literally shell-shocked by what they had seen and heard. I saw David Bouley cooking on Canal Street for the fire fighters and police.

Later that week, I interviewed Drew Nieporent for a trade publication. He told me that the entire morning staff at Windows on the World had perished in the tragedy. I’ll never forget how he choked up during our conversation…

All this memories flooded my mind when Tracie P and I heard the news last night.

It seems like a lifetime ago… and it was… I had just purchased my first digital camera. It used 3½-inch floppy disks as memory cards. Today, I can take larger and more photos with my phone. I didn’t even know what (we)blog was.

Singing with David Garza for Japan tonight in Austin

The above photo is little bit blurry and it’s hard to make out what’s going on in it. But it’s one of my favorite photos of the year so far: me with one of my musical heroes, David Garza, in the studio recording the new Nous Non Plus record last month, snapped by Tracie P through the control room window.

David is one of the most remarkable singer-songwriters I have ever seen or heard and you can imagine how thrilled I was when he agreed to play on our album (which we started mixing in Los Angeles today, btw). And he’s a super sweet and generous dude…

That’s David wearing Céline Dijon’s hair, with me (Cal d’Hommage) and Jean-Luc Retard (on the right).

David’s going to be singing for Japan tonight at Vino Vino in Austin: there’s no cover and Jeff Courington, who owns and runs this awesome wine bar, is going to be donating 25% of sales to the Red Cross Fund for Victims of the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

Please join us if you can (I’ll be sitting in on a song or two and Tracie P will be there, too) and please remember our sisters and brothers in Japan.

Strangers in the Night: slowdancing with Tracie P

Thinking back to that first email, that first date, that first dance, and that first kiss, it’s hard not to marvel at how two “strangers in the night, two lonely people” managed to find each other — the one in Austin, Texas, the other in San Diego, California — in this world and in this lifetime. Thankfully, we did find each other. And now, on this early Sunday morning, as Tracie P slumbers peacefully and the thrill of what our future holds fills me with so much excitement that I cannot sleep, my heart and mind are filled with joy and wonder.

The night we finished recording the rhythm tracks for the band’s new album week before last, we went to hear our producer and friend David Garza perform at the Continental Club (those are David’s paintings on the walls, btw).

With Tracie P as my muse, my songs had begun to come to life that day, just one of the great miracles borne out of a glance exchanged by two lonely bloggers back in the summer of 2008…

Strangers in the night exchanging glances
Wondering in the night
What were the chances we’d be sharing love
Before the night was through.

Something in your eyes was so inviting,
Something in your smile was so exciting,
Something in my heart,
Told me I must have you.

Strangers in the night, two lonely people
We were strangers in the night
Up to the moment
When we said our first hello.
Little did we know
Love was just a glance away,
A warm embracing dance away and –

Ever since that night we’ve been together.
Lovers at first sight, in love forever.
It turned out so right,
For strangers in the night.

Love was just a glance away,
A warm embracing dance away

Ever since that night we’ve been together.
Lovers at first sight, in love forever.
It turned out so right,
For strangers in the night.

I love you, Tracie P. I love you more than words can say. And I will spend the rest of my days trying to find a way to let you know just how much I love and adore you… “It turned out so right for strangers in the night.”

Sam’s bbq, Champagne, and band practice (video taste)

Texas is home to some of the greatest (some would say the greatest) barbecue in the country (world). Unfortunately, as with any great world cuisine, commercialization to often rears its scurfy head and colonizes what was once honest and pure.

That’s one of the reasons that you need to move outside the major urban centers to find the truly great expressions of barbecue in the Lone Star State.

On a tight schedule with writing, rehearsing, and recording, I didn’t have time to take the band to Llano or Lockhart, Texas, and so I took the “lads and lass” to the only bbq joint where I spend my money in the town of Austin, Sam’s. That’s simpatico owner Willie Mays and his son in the photo with Morris, Céline, and Jean-Luc (from left).

What to pair with smoked brisket, pork ribs, chicken, and Sam’s specialty, smoked mutton?

Champagne, the breakfast of champions and the ideal food-friendly wine. In this case, some NV 100% Chardonnay by Henriot.

It’s so exciting to be writing and recording again with my band and it’s such a joy to hear music played in our home.

Here’s a little taste of a song that won’t appear on the album but is part of a special and dear-to-my-heart project that you’ll hear about later this year. Video by Tracie P, who wins the award for the greatest, most patient, most loving, and most beautiful wife that any man could wish for (and the girl can cook!). Thank you, Picci Wicci, I love you so much and you make me the best man I could ever be…

Barbaresco, fried chicken, and keyboards

Morris “Mars” Chevrolet flew in last night with his Nord and Moog and so Tracie P fried up some chicken, mashed some potatoes, and sautéed some broccoli raab and I popped a bottle of 2006 Barbaresco by Produttori del Barbaresco.

You’ve heard me say it before: I am truly blessed to have such a loving and beautiful wife, so generous in spirit, and so supportive of my music. She’s been cooking up a storm, feeding the band, and enjoying the music as we have transformed our little slice of heaven on the corner of Alegria [happiness] and Gro[o]ver into a recording studio. The fried chicken was delicious.

The 06 Produttori del Barbaresco — a wine and vintage much discussed here on the blog — was a little tight last night, even after a few hours of aeration. Seems like it’s closing up a little bit and so maybe it’s time to cellar (following its initial brightness and generosity of fruit).

But the “music is flowing… amazing… and blowing my way”… who knows the song? It’s one of my favs.

Tomrrow’s the big day with the whole outfit in the studio… and so now it’s time to get back to tracking!

The new DOCG list and a killer Offida Pecorino

Above: The 2008 Offida Pecorino Le Merlettaie by Ciù Ciù is the best Pecorino I’ve ever tasted in the U.S. Really, really dug this wine.

“Official” is a relative qualifier in Italy. And I make that statement with all due respect and sans ironie. In the linear, Protestant thought processes of the Anglo-Saxon mindset, actors tend to see things in “black or white,” “day or night,” “yes or no”… In the non-linear, Catholic all-embracing Romance understanding of the world and the way it works, lines are blurred and absolutes are malleable. (Does anyone remember Bertolucci’s treatment of absolutes and Plato’s cave in Il conformista, 1970?)

Above: Le Merlettaie is named after the famous lacemakers of Offida. The merletto a tombolo (tombolo is the pillow used to make the lace) is one of the great national treasures of Italy. I found this video showing how the lace is made.

In the wake of the publication of Alfonso Cevola’s update DOCG list, contentious emails have been hurled across the internets this morning debating the currency of the “official” number of DOCGs. I guess it depends what your definition of “is” is.

The only thing I know for certain is that Alfonso has done the wine world a service by compiling and diligently updating the list. Whether you’re a Master Sommelier candidate studying for your exam or your a server in a fine-dining establishment who wants to be able to discuss the Italian appellation system intelligently with your patrons, his list is an indispensable tool in deciphering the canon law of Italian wine.

Above: To DOC or DOCG… I say “schlemiel, schlimazel!” Pecorino, when vinified in a traditional manner, is delicious (BTW, the schlemiel spills his soup on the schlimazel.)

I can also confirm that Offida Pecorino will be equally delicious when it attains its new “Terre di Offida” DOCG status. The one that we drank last night showed sturdy acidity and a wonderfully viscous mouthfeel, with nutty and stone fruit notes.

In other news…

Last night, Tracie P made ragù alla bolognese for Nous Non Plus and the utterly inimitable and magical David Garza who came over to listen to our tracks and sprinkle some of his amazing gold dust on us. He brought a beautiful 1964 handmade nylon string guitar and it was amazing to hear him play and noodle on the patio before dinner. He’s performing the last concert of his residency at the Continental Club (gallery) in Austin on Monday night.