Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Ron Sexsmith at the Barbican Centre, London - 30 April

Although I usually make full use of all that London has to offer in terms of fine music and theatre, Saturday was to be my last concert, as there is no more space on the credit cards and I am highly likely to be told on Friday that I’ll be made redundant, which will see me bankrupt and homeless by the end of the year. So it was an important concert to me, not just because of that and the need for some cheering up, but because it was the great Ron Sexsmith. Sadly, I’d been off work for a few days, having hurt my back, and kept having setbacks so hadn’t left the house since Tuesday. In the morning, I couldn’t see how I would make it into town and back. But I was determined, and thanks to some encouragement and to Nurofen with codeine, I made it, and it was so worth it.

An example of Ron’s unassuming nature, his humility and kindness was when he worried aloud that he’d been unable to deliver a cheeky fan’s request for the original handwritten lyric to what Ron called his most romantic song, Tomorrow in Her Eyes, which he’d written for his sweetheart, who I thought (when watching the insightful documentary Love Shines) provided tremendous support for him and indeed was working the merchandise table that night at the Barbican Centre. This fan had asked for the penned lyric to give it to his own love, for whom the song was special, and Ron said he’d searched the house to no avail. So what he had done was copy out the lyrics in his own hand. 'Would that be all right?' He seemed genuinely concerned and listened for the answer, which you can imagine, and Ron leaned out across the first rows of the audience to hand it to said elated fan, who shook his hand, as the woman seated beside him dabbed her tearful eyes and looked luckier than Kate Middleton. I did wonder if Ron had just spoiled a birthday surprise or proposal, until I realised that there was nothing spoilt about having the man himself hand you this stupendous gift.

This was just one incident at the concert that demonstrated Ron’s efforts to please and act genuinely in all he does. No airs of the big star he should be. This man is special. Even if everyone else comes to recognise his supreme talent as a songwriter one day, he will still remain that special as he is a good, pure soul. His fans see that, and there should be more of them. They include Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Ray Davies, Gordon Lightfoot, Emmylou Harris, Feist and Chris Martin of Coldplay. Presumably, as they were apparently in the audience on Saturday, one could add the excellent Nick Lowe (who has covered a Sexsmith song) and Haircut 100’s Nick Heyward.

Whenever I see Ron Sexsmith in concert, I’m reminded that he should also realise how special he is, because he just doesn’t. It’s endearing, but it’s also a bit tragic, particularly when one hears him say in the documentary Love Shines, about the production of his latest album, Long Player Late Bloomer, that he’d seriously been considering giving up singing/songwriting. More absurdities are revealed, like that despite having written an enormous repertoire of truly brilliant songs over 12 albums, he still does his laundry himself at a laundrette, and he couldn’t afford a piano even though he writes on one, so his wife was poignantly moved when someone gave him one for his birthday, thus helping the world, even those who don’t know it yet and still have to discover this buried treasure.

But I’m saying way too much now, considering this is just meant to be a set list, and I’ll write up a proper ‘review’, or a play-by-play account for my website (http://www.aboutlastnight.org.uk/) later. I thought I’d posted the set list when I got home after midnight on Sunday, but something seems to have gone wrong, just as I’d hoped to have written the fuller account by now. That will come, but I must now focus on the busy week at work, particularly as Friday is D-Day, but I’ll be smiling, thanks to Ron, as I do so.

Following the engaging theatre that is a Jim White set, full of amazing tales of Florida near-redneck living, Ron came on with a truly talented band of four musicians, and they played the following in a set that lasted about one hour and 40 minutes:-

1. Heart’s Desire

2. Get in Line

3. The Reason Why

4. Thinking Out Loud

5. Hard Bargain [He said they weren’t going to do this song until they heard that Emmylou Harris had recorded it—indeed named her album after it—and they figured she must know something]

6. Just My Heart Talkin’

7. Believe It When I See It [He apologised for his performance on Later….With Jools Holland this week, sadly his first BBC performance, as he’d been tired and said he did the worst ever version of it….and wish him luck tonight as there were lots of high notes]

8. Wastin’ Time

9. Slow Learner

10. Brandy Alexander [written with (Leslie) Feist about his favourite cocktail]

11. Gold in Them Hills [Ron on the piano, after sheepishly suggesting he barely dared play piano in front of the skilled pianist, Dave Matheson, and claiming the Barbican’s grand piano would help him sound better than he was]

12. Nowadays [He joked that this and the next few songs were ‘far too complex for the rest of the band’ so they left just him and Dave to play them]

13. Tomorrow in Her Eyes [as I said, written for his sweetheart, possibly the most romantic song he’d ever written, now more so after he made an audience member’s night....]

14. Dandelion Wine [because someone had requested it before the show; Ron now on his own]
15. Speaking with the Angel [written for his then baby son, and Ron said the thing he disliked about the Love Shines documentary was the director implied that he and his son were not close, but they were and watched the premiere together]

16. Strawberry Blonde [the band re-joined him for this Ron classic]

17. No Help At All [after which he quipped that rehearsal is overrated]

18. Eye Candy [written after hearing girls in a bar talk about picking up men—‘not me, of course’]

19. Secret Heart

20. All In Good Time

21. Love Shines


22. Galbraith Street [about the street where he grew up, performed on his own]

23. Not About to Lose [band re-joined him here]

24. Every Time I Follow [some people will have missed this as it was 11pm and many of us were scared of missing our last trains…though I stayed, happily.]

It may well be that when I go to write my ‘real’ review, I’ll find when looking at my illegible scribble that I’ve reported something wrong or left out a song, but I believe the above is correct. It was an outstanding show, Ron was in really good voice, and his band was superb. Thank you Ron and Nurofen for the evening, which I will remember long after I endure bankruptcy, and will be happily humming Ron Sexsmith songs in my future cardboard box home on the street!

Monday, 2 May 2011

The Outstanding Elizabeth Taylor Dean

I wasn’t remotely interested in the Royal Wedding, and even less so because of all the ridiculous hype in the media beforehand, telling us how fascinated we were about who might have designed the dress and whether there had been a rehearsal. But I watched the event, and I watched it wearing jeans with my Grandmother’s pearls. I think she would have loved to have seen it, but tragically she died suddenly a few weeks earlier. I flew home to the States for her funeral—well, it was a Celebration of Her Life—and everyone kept asking me what I thought about The Wedding. America was much more thrilled about it than those of us who had to pay for it.

I remember that I was staying with my Grandmother in 1981 when she convinced me, then an apathetic teenager, that I should get up at five in the morning on my summer holidays to watch a television broadcast of a wedding of English people I didn’t know. She infused enthusiasm about its potential magic, saying seeing the heir to the British throne marry was a once-in-a-lifetime event, which in the end it wasn’t, particularly if you include his second wedding. But those words do pain me now, as I’m all too aware that what I see as her premature death meant that she missed this second-in-a-lifetime event on this scale, and I would have loved to have discussed it with her, as she would have enjoyed it—just as I had surprisingly ended up enjoying the Charles and Diana wedding, as she predicted. So I wore her necklace so that she could be with me as I watched this time, but of course it wasn’t as fun as if she had been delightfully, tangibly present.

I spoke a fortnight ago at the Celebration of Her Life, which was held at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where she volunteered and was involved in many ways for much of her adult life. It was comforting to be holding it there, and kind of the Museum to let us do so. I wish that I had taken advantage of the chance to wander through the galleries of Wyeth paintings, which I had grown up around, even though they’ll never be the same without my Grandmother beside me enlightening me about each one. But I was too worried about the fact that I would be the second person to speak yet had not once read through what I’d just finished writing moments before we left for the service, and that it was trapped on my iPad and I was terrified of the technology going wrong as I read it from said gadget. (In the end, the only struggle was having to read it in small single-spaced font as there seemed no way to adjust that—oh, and the whole thing disappearing completely for a moment while I was speaking, but happily it returned).

The evening went beautifully, and there was an amazing turn out despite the terrific storms that night, which locally brought down huge trees that blocked bridges and which caused terrible damage further south. Particularly considering that many of the guests would have been what I once might have described as elderly—that’s a confusing term given my grandmother’s youthfulness up ‘til her death at 93—it was heart-warming.

I thought I’d reprint what I said here, perhaps foolishly as I keep my (neglected) blog private from those I know or see, who are the only people who have asked to read what I said, and I like to remain anonymous here but will use my Grandmother’s real name. Do bear in mind that I had to write it in a truly mad rush and was under pressure to cut out a lot of things I wish I’d included, as it was initially suggested no one should speak for more than three minutes, and I knew it would end up long. (Just as this has!) But I decided that it was my only time to pay tribute in that way to my Grandmother, and I was going to just do it, and I’m glad I did. I just wish I’d had time to read it over even once or preferably polish it, and hadn’t discarded some important thoughts in my haste.

My grandmother was absolutely amazing, quite a beautiful and lively character, and would do anything to bring fun into each day. I’m particularly gutted as I truly thought she’d be around at least another 10 years and rather hoped to see her soon, as if my expected redundancy is confirmed (possibly on 6 May), my first planned course of action was to take up her ongoing offer to fly me to see her, as I’d finally then have the time. I didn’t make it in time. You’ve no idea how horrific it was to fly there anyway, have the usual initial automatic feelings of joy fill me as the plane landed in Philadelphia, then travel to her house to stay there, but without her, and always to be without her. I still haven’t entirely faced up to this dreadful loss; I unhealthily look away instead.

I mustn't be morbid. She was an empress in my world and will never fully be out of it; she was too strong a presence. I will always adore her. I wish I’d said more at the service but I’m pleased I said something. I’m also glad I praised the marvellous Jamie Wyeth painting Portrait of a Pig (and wasn’t insulting his father Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of Helga; I was simply embarrassed as a child to see full frontal nudity), as the marvellous artist Jamie Wyeth himself very kindly attended the ceremony, which means a lot. Also, as the wonderful Museum allowed us to put up several of her paintings in the foyer by the gift shop for the service, she has finally been exhibited in her favourite museum! I strongly recommend that anyone in the Pennsylvania/Delaware area visits the Brandywine River Museum and its beautiful grounds by the river, and donate what you can to keep it going…..it’s on my list of future beneficiaries once I win the lottery (which really needs to happen soon!).

As my Grandmother did not want her obituary to include a photograph, perhaps because like all of us, she did not see herself as the craggy face with pale hair that we all become, I’ve simply--for now--included here a photo of her from her first wedding in 1938 (tragically, she was widowed a few years later when my Grandfather was killed in a submarine in World War II).

But it isn’t really who I think of when I see Libby Dean, because it’s monochrome. My grandmother was always in full, blazing colour. Nothing garish, always pleasant. She was teals and turquoise, with bright pink lipstick and perfectly matching accessories. When I saw her, I saw beauty, not age. We tend to look at elderly people and just see the ‘old’, not the individual. She never failed to be an individual, and perhaps that, and the bright colourful character that matched the bright, colourful outfits, is what left me in shock that she could die, and so suddenly.

It somehow had not really occurred to me that that was on the cards, even though I lost my much younger father totally unexpectedly a few years ago. I thought they both were invincible. And it was my Grandmother who so understood my close bond with—and consequential true devastation at the loss of—my father, and kept getting in touch to see how I was coping as she knew it was particularly hard for me. She did much the same when I lost my precious cat and buddy of 20 years; she understood how much he had meant to me, as she had also had close furry companions throughout her life. Hence her dread that she was going to lose her aging, beloved spaniel Zack, who was in ill health. We were relieved that she did not have to face that, but a sad note is that right after Zack attended our gathering to spread her ashes on a delightfully sunny day, he weakened and did not pull through, bless him. Maybe they were holding on for each other and are together again now.

I suppose my words will mean little to those of you who didn’t have the joy of knowing this marvellous creature, my Grandmother, and I’ve gone on so long, I doubt anyone is still reading. But I guess this is cathartic. Here’s what I said at the Celebration of her Life on 16 April:-


The other week, the actress Elizabeth Taylor died. Now, devastatingly, another Elizabeth Taylor has died, my Grandmother, Elizabeth Taylor Dean. They were both icons, but my grandmother was the Original; she never failed to point out that she was Elizabeth Taylor first, and I think she might get some satisfaction from being Elizabeth Taylor last as well. Whilst Grandmommy was the fair age of 93, I was convinced she would live to be 100, so her death is more of a shock than you would expect. I'd hoped to visit again shortly, and it's been difficult to travel here and find myself gripped with the usual excitement I get coming to this area in anticipation of spending time with this extraordinary character, as she was a joy to be around, and a marvellous companion who found pleasure in little things, and livened up anything dull with a cute way of describing it, always learning, always laughing. She would find fun for us, and every excursion was a joy. It seems inconceivable that she is gone, but her character still permeates so many of these places, particularly here at the Museum.

I've been astonished by the number of terrific thoughts of her that have burst into my head over the past few days, and I hope you'll forgive me if I meander through some of these memories now....

Libby Dean was a pioneer of several trends that have now become quite common place, such as recycling, bedazzling, and pimping one's ride. If you perhaps wouldn't naturally associate such things with my Grandmother, I'll elaborate.

First, I can tell by looking around the room that many of you watched the MTV programme 'Pimp My Ride', a sort of 'extreme makeover - car edition', where someone's car is customised with unlikely luxuries like a bowling ball spinner or a gold jacuzzi. Libby Dean started a similar practice long ago, as she wouldn't take delivery of a new car without first having custom stripes--very tastefully--painted down the sides of the car, complete with her initials. Yes, a monogrammed car. And rather than a common Coke can holder by the driver's seat, she had a place for a crystal tumbler, as she would never drive to dinner without a glass of vodka by her side. Well, it was the cocktail hour, after all. And amazingly, she was never done for drink driving; it was eating a taco that proved to be her undoing in an accident, but that's another story. Certainly, her driving did tend to leave her passengers terrified for their lives, but that was more down to the fact that she seemed to think that you were meant to centre the car over the line that divided the lanes. Fortunately, she had an angel on her shoulder; that's the only explanation for the safety of her passengers over the years, and the fact that she came out of two car accidents very late in life without serious injury. I like to think that she'll now be someone else's guardian angel, which would perfectly suit her giving nature.

Next, I mentioned 'bedazzling', or even starting the 'extreme makeover--home edition' trend. None of us could have an ordinary lunchbox, coaster, glasses case or even kitchen cupboard handle--such things were too plain for her world. Grandmommy would affix appliqu├ęs or paint them until they were unique, adding a special, magical Libby touch. You've seen the impressive quality of her paintings; imagine that on your sweatshirt. With my debutante ball and wedding approaching, I passed to her my insignificant, dull white shoes, and they came back to me covered lavishly in pearls, sequins and lace, something that Cinderella's fairy godmother would envy. If she had worked for a designer, she would have made a fortune, but she was just interested in making the world a prettier place, and she certainly had a flair for it. She was also very practical and could fix anything, so when my deb dress was ripped moments before the ball started, and when my bridesmaid dress was too large and in danger of falling off, she whipped out a needle and thread and made everything better in minutes.

Finally, long before it was trendy to be 'green' she was a champion recycler. At every Christmas, she'd stand over us saying, 'That's lovely paper--save that!' so we'd unwrap the gift delicately and hand her the wrap, and indeed the next year, our presents were wrapped in very lovely, but very wrinkled, gift wrap.

But her recycling didn't end there. Rather than tuck away any unwanted gifts, she would attempt to find them a loving home elsewhere, sort of like an SPCA rehoming/rescue centre for gifts. Though she could really have done with a database, as one year the gift she sent me was one I had sent her a year before. But I'm all for recycling, and it's the thought that counts, and she was always thoughtful.

She was also stylish, beautifully presented in bright colours, and a sight to behold. I remember one of her old friends telling me years ago that even if she were wearing a fuchsia outfit, she would even ensure that her contact lenses matched.

Another memorable trait was my grandmother's patience and tolerance, whether it was offering encouraging words when I presented her with toads that I had rescued from her swimming pool, or coping quietly when my brother and I confused the strict instructions about avoiding her expensive, unripe crop of green beans, rather than picking every one of them. She was great at allowing me to explore her old barn and enjoy the ancient books and Barbie dolls I found there, and didn't bat an eyelid when I gave the life-sized doll Harriet, who stayed at her house, a haircut that looked like she'd been hit by some nuclear catastrophe and made her prime fodder for a horror film. She just bought Harriet a wig, and I always wondered if she'd taken Harriet to the store with her to get the proper fit.

Years later, I tried that remarkable patience considerably, when she arranged for the grandson of some friends to take me to the Bachelor's Ball at the Hotel DuPont. But only after he took me first to his parents' house for cocktails, before getting to the Ball and having champagne, then starting on other drinks with no sign of food, did I realise that it was probably not such a good idea to have starved myself for two days beforehand. The next thing I knew, the ladies' room at the Hotel DuPont had to be evacuated of all the women so that the perfectly nice, respectable date that my grandmother had arranged could come into the ladies' room and pick me up off the floor, then presumably sling me over his shoulder--I have no memory of this--before carrying me out through the ballroom past many guests who my Grandmother would have known, through the Hotel DuPont before getting me home, where I promptly 'fell asleep' on the floor. When I woke, rather worse for wear, I was terrified about what my grandmother would say. In the end, she just gave me a slight roll of the eye, a single quick shake of the head, and then she took me to the theatre.

In doing so, she stood by my side as I faced up to my shame, since the performance was the same weekend and also at the Hotel DuPont. She was largely responsible for my adoration of the theatre. I've seen many outstanding legends performing on stage in London, but what I always look back at with the most pride are two productions my grandmother took me to see: Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! and Yul Brynner in The King and I. Not the original stagings, I hasten to add, but fun ones by her side.

She achieved some fame in her own right, and I know she was proud that her creation with Anne Scarlett of the 'critters, angels and stars’, which adorned the Christmas trees at the museum here for years, also appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek, when she and other volunteers decorated the Reagans' Christmas tree in the White House, about which she was also interviewed on CBS morning television by Maria Shriver, now Mrs Schwarzenegger, which we watched with pride. She had a critter factory in her old home, a workshop filled year-round with drying teasels and cake tins full of silica gel. The reckless drives with her often involved stopping suddenly on the highway and pulling over because she'd seen just the right bit of Queen Anne's Lace, and she'd cut it and put it in a the tin of silica gel she kept in the trunk. During our many trips to Longwood Gardens, if I pointed out some pretty Celosia, she'd mumble that it would make an excellent Santa hat. I'm pleased that that legacy lives on, in the many Christmas decorations I'll hang on my tree each year, and in the book, Critters Angels and Stars, which I believe the Museum still sells.

It's hard to be at the Museum without her; our time here was such a huge part of my childhood. I always felt, when she brought me through the employees' entrance and was greeted by everyone we passed, that we were coming through some secret VIP entrance. She knew that I loved Jamie Wyeth's Pig and was embarrassed by Helga's nudity, but always shared her enormous knowledge with such thorough and fascinating background that it rooted my lifelong love of art. Last time I was here, we toured the NC Wyeth studio and house, and she taught the guide a few things, particularly as she had studied under Carolyn Wyeth. I also witnessed her discreetly teaching a guide at Winterthur some things he'd got wrong. That was the time she climbed into a giant bird's nest there so I could photograph her, the same way a grandparent would indulge a toddler. Not long after that, I tested her astonishing patience by keeping her waiting for an age at the Winterthur gift shop, with her uttering no complaints as I made her stop the car repeatedly when we finally left with claims that I was excited to see Canada Geese, or a pretty tree, and must take a closer look. Although she was quite a force to be reckoned with, her love for her grandchildren must be what kept her from hitting me. Little did she know that I had been instructed to keep her out of the house while my mother and aunt planned a surprise birthday party, and I really hope she forgave me.

She certainly thanked me for my gift, and her voice still chides me in my mind every time I procrastinate sending what she taught us was a crucially important thank you note. There's an old copy of Emily Post's book of Etiquette in her house, and I half expected there to be an inscription from the author thanking my Grandmother for ghost-writing it for her. She certainly was an expert on the right thing to do and always kept her family in line.

Indeed, she was absolutely the matriarch, and now our family feels a bit like it's floundering around aimlessly without its centre, its foundation crumbled. I've no idea how we'll manage, but I expect we'll apply the strength we inherited from her and learn to stand strong and weather this and any other storm that comes our way.

We have to look for small mercies here, to take some comfort for ourselves. I'm grateful that she was with a friend when she collapsed, as she always appreciated her many dear friends. I am glad that she achieved so many things she wanted, even making it to the Chelsea Flower Show in London some years ago; producing some gorgeous art; and was surrounded by brilliant friends and family, including always at least one furry friend by her side who meant the world to her. We can take comfort from the fact that her fears of losing her beloved companion Zack, the King Charles Cavalier spaniel, did not materialise. And I am just thankful that we were so blessed as to be touched by such an amazing life, and I am so proud to be part of this family that was built on her strong foundation. I take comfort in the fact that, although we are devastated by the void she has left, she is perhaps now in a better place, brightening up Heaven in the same way that everyone here brightened when they first had the joy of meeting this extraordinary woman. Her new peaceful community that I like to imagine welcoming her includes her beloved son Terry, many precious friends including several Golden Retrievers, and not one but two husbands. I'm not really sure how that works in Heaven, but if anyone could pull it off without acrimony, it's her.

So we are left here with this enormous void, and it seems that a great deal of warmth has just leaked from the universe, and I am frozen, and numb. But her tremendous presence is very much here and will always be felt, and part of her soul is hanging beside the impressive paintings in this museum, in the flowers in the fields--particularly Queen's Anne's Lace and even prickly teasels, which rather match her as she pulled off faux grumpy quite well. Such a robust, feisty, special charming character doesn't simply ebb away. I'm sure you'll find something in your life that will make you think of Libby--perhaps it's a fond memory, a flower, a scent on the breeze--her spirit somehow flitting past you. Smile when that happens; it's what she would want. I've no doubt we'll all somehow benefit from the presence of the redoubtable Libby Dean for many years to come.