Dedicated to Ron Miller, who died recently. Ron often read my posts and I think he would have liked this one.
July 24, 2013
Everything cant be memorable.
The road surrounding the rocky stone hill that the Acropolis sits on is amazing for street musicians. It is wide, nicely paved with stone slabs. As you travel the ½ mile around the Acropolis which is very well lit with hundreds of yellowish spotlights, you get the amazing dream like views of an iconic site. It’s like seeing the pyramids, or the Mona Lisa. Its something you’ve seen so much all your life, that when you actually see it in person, it seems to reverberate through your being.
Starting on the road at Thissios, I see an American couple. They are about 50 and say they have been married for 18 years. Its a sad story, he came here for his father’s funeral and now they are trying to make money to get back. Since they are minimally talented, I think they might be able to get back in time for their 50th wedding anniversary. I play a song with them. She wants to play Hotel California after I tell her Im from California. I am nice and dont tell her how much I hate that song. They are duly impressed with my playing and I play the obligatory encore, then head up and around the road.
My next stop is Spiros, a nice looking typical Greek looking man, bearded and slim. He plays keyboards and sings. He has a microphone snapped onto his head so he can sing and play at the same time. He has a full beard and wears glasses. He has a comic quality about him, always seems like he is about to smile. he has a nice voice and sings old Greek songs. I ask if I can play with him. He seems surprised, but is very gracious. “But of course you can. I would love it”. Then all the normal questions. “I know just one Spiro.” “Yeah Spiro and Spiros is the same. He’s the one that stole right?” And in the end, that is all Spiro Agnew is known for, that he was a Greek who disgraced Greeks around the world.
Just a word about Greek music. Its Greek to me. The time is funny. Its all over the place. It might 4 beats for a while, then out of the blue, there are a few extra beats thrown in. Then it goes to 9 beats (4 +4 +1) for a while. half the time, I dont know what is going on. Its not easy. I can play pretty well by ear, but if the time is strange, forget it. Spiros is very kind to let me play. I dont play very well, but he seems very happy to have me there and keeps inviting me to play another one. We hold long conversations between song (during which he doesnt take off his microphone so everyone can hear what we say). After the next song, I ask him what the song is. “Its called 3 am”. “it sounds romantic.” “yes it is, otherwise why would you be up at 3 am? The other one is called ‘Black eyes, black eyebrows. its about how artificial the fashions are these days”
Finally I decide to leave Spiro. When I do I joke that I am going to steal his audience (about 15 people are listening) . Spiros beats me to it. “Ok.” And he makes an announcement through his head mike, “anyone who wants to hear some great jazz now, (What’s your name?) will be playing jazz down the way a bit. “ That was so nice, I can’t believe it. I tell him too, and say goodbye and continue walking around. (no one follows me)
I walk about 3 minutes and come to a great place with benches and a perfect unobstructed view of the Pantheon (the main temple on the Acropolis). Also there are 2 beautiful mature women sitting there on the bench. Perfect excuse to talk with them. “Excuse me. THis is your spot do you mind if I play music here?” They look at each other and nod, that they dont care at all. The one woman smiles up sweetly at me. I have found that asking people nearly always gets me a positive response. For one thing they think I am so polite for asking. For another, it breaks the ice. I sit nearby and take out my horn. One problem though. I can hear Spiros’ music from here. That means that he would be able to hear my music too. I feel conflicted. he was so nice to me, and now I am perhaps going to disturb him. Afterall it is his livelyhood. I think for a while then decide under the circumstances (2 pretty girls) he would understand. I decide to play 2 songs, and gauge the reaction. I play my 2 songs and there is no reaction from either the people or (sadly) from the woman. I decide to move on and feel better not disturbing Spiros anymore, though I am sure he is so gracious, that he wouldnt mind.
Another 2 minutes and I come to a group of about 6 people sitting playing Greek music. “can I play with you guys?” “Sure sit down” Upon closer examination there is one guy playing and singing and a chinese woman with a chinese bowing instrument (the one with one string that sounds like a moan) and another guy just tapping the drum. The guy who said sure is tapping the drum. “I dont really play, its my brothers drum he’ll be back in a minute.” “What did I ask you for, you’re not even in the band”, I joke. Luckily he thinks thats funny. “I know man, why are you even talking to me?”
The singer is friendly and his voice for some reason reminds me of the muppet star Ernie. Hestarts playing a Greek song. its not easy to follow and I mess it up pretty badly. In my defense I am attempting something difficult, to play a song Ive never even heard the first time and to play it right. He’s so nice that he says I did a good job. I ask him what the song is about . .Is it a song about love, hate, or pain?” “yes all of those.” “really?”.yes its about an acrobat who is balanced between falling and not falling and also in life” Its amazing about music. Its so important to a cultureand yet we dont really think about it, how each culture has their own musical (as well as artistic culture) that is great and worthy of study. However, we think that our songs are the ones. Other cultures also have great songs. “Whats the other one about?” “its about a sheep in the sky, man.” “Whats a sheep doing in the sky?’ ‘I dont know, man’
“let me try again, I can do better.” he laughs and starts playing another song but it is greatly simplified. In fact its not a song at all. its just one chord over and over. Maybe he thinks I wont notice it. After about 30 seconds I stop. “What are you doing man? Play the song.” “I am playing the song.” “No you’re not,you’re just playing the introduction. “ He laughs. Ok man. But he doesnt play the song, instead he says, “lets play a song you know. How about ‘Knock knocking on heavens door” Of course I know it, but its a defeat for me. Still we play it and it sounds pretty strange playing that old rock and roll song under the eye of Athena of the Acropolis with a greek guitarist, a chinese moaner, and a saxophonist from Ohio. But surprisingly its not too bad.
We agree that we should play a jazz song, a greek song, and a chinese song. “We have greek, chinese, and jewish…throw a little klezmer…yeah lets see what happens.” Then I notice that the Chinese woman is kind of cute and the non-drummer has dibs on her, holding her hands etc. The chinese woman starts playing what she says is the most famous chinese song ever. She plays well and we all try to follow. It sounds really strange and beautiful. “I feel like im in china. women with bound feet are walking all around.”
Ok lets play some jazz. I play an impossible riff from Donna Lee. Everyone looks stunned. “What chords are that? “I dont know.” I lie. They all laugh. “How about summertime?” They know it but havent played it. Its simple so I try to teach them. It takes quite a while to get things going. When I say d minor, he insists that he is playing d minor, but he isnt. There is some cross communication going on. Finally we get it straight and start playing summertime, the chinese woman piping in with some nice moaning fills too. I dont worry about him getting the last 4 bars where the song briefly goes to major.
“Close enough man. Good job”
It’s time to play another greek song but they are reluctant to let me slaughter their song. “comeon man, i dont mind failing.”
“ WE dont mind failing.” he insists
“ you are not the one failing, i am.”
“ we fail together. “
but I am feisty“not if its your song. Im a beginner , its my first day.”
He laughs finally. Ok I win about failing. its her first day too. I believe it. The Chinese woman says ,” our first day….”she’s cute, I believe it.
Another cute woman walks up. She says she is celebrating because she got accepted to a masters program. The non-drummer speaks up. Let’s sing summertime.” “what are you the director..who is this guy?” We share a good laugh. “how are you celebrating?” “By playing music with strangers.” She says she knows Summertime and so we try that. The guitarist for some reason though starts playing the melody one note at a time. “Chords. chords….chords…Play the fucking chords man” “What?” The chords, the chords, you are the guitar player you have to play the chords.” Everyone is laughing. I am right. For some reason he thinks she needs to hear the melody but she doesnt. Everyone turns against me but finally i get him to play the chords that we played before and finally it sounds something like “Summertime” For the rest of the time whenever there is a lull, someone shouts out “Play the fucking chords man” and it never fails to crack everybody up.
After Summertime the woman, Anna, says she wants to sing another song by Leonard Cohen called Dance Me to the End of Love” Apparently the drummer and she practiced it. When it comes time though, “I forget it.” She is angry. “You could have brought the book.” “Just sing it and he will remember” So she does and amazingly he does to. We have a nice time playing that song, until “i forget the words“
“ Finally she does and we play for awhile. At the end … thats a greek song “(he means the next song is a greek song but I understand his english literally….”leonard cohen?”
they all laugh like crazy. “ No the next one, man” I defend my remark, “…its possible that leonard cohen wrote a greek song, after all he’s Jewish…thats close enough.” “ take it easy man….”
Finally I feel like its time to move on and doing things backwards we introduce ourselves. The drummer says, “My name is Alexander.” “Isnt that hard to live up to? I mean you must have gotten ‘Alexander the great, all your life. Or was it Alexander, the so-so?” I tease. “The great!” “I agree and also the ‘kind’.” “My name is Augustus.” “ Ouch, how can anyone live up to a name like that?” “yeah right man.” I leave on that happy note. We agree that maybe we will meet the next day. I walk around the acropolis seeing other people i met and played with before, but mostly just soaking up this magical atmosphere. Afterall, its the acropolis, home of the gods.