January 27, 2010

More tears at Virginia Tech

Police announced Tuesday that they have tentatively identified the remains of a woman found in a farmer's field near Charlottesville, Virginia as those of Morgan Harrington, 20, an education major at Virginia Tech, who had been reported missing after a Metallica concert.

Yes, that Virginia Tech. Once solely fabled for its engineering programs and its spirited Hokies varsity program Virginia Tech has been greatly overshadowed by tragedy and grief in recent years and has taken on a more notorious reputation.

Most infamously the school of 30,000 students was deeply shocked and traumatized in April 2007 when 23-year old student Seung-Hui Cho went on a shooting rampage, killing 32 people and then himself. It remains the deadliest such mass-killing in U.S. history, a terrible badge for a university to have to bear.

Surely the good people of Virginia Tech were still recovering and mourning when yet another horrific act of brutality occurred in January 2009, when international graduate student Xin Yang was decapitated in a cafe on campus by another international graduate student named Haiyang Zhu. This incident was barely reported in the media, perhaps for reasons of sensitivity, although the fact that the victim and perpetrator were both Chinese nationals makes one wonder*.

As if this wasn't bad enough two Virgina Tech students, David Lee Metzler and Heidi Lynn Childs, were shot to death in August 2009. They were 19 and 18 respectively; barely adults starting their lives and adventures together. How a campus is supposed to be able to handle four major tragedies in such a short amount of time is beyond me.

I have been a member of a university community for 20 years, nearly half of which as a staff member. University and college campuses are marvellous places to work and live. Most have a well-defined sense of community and the best of them feel like a large family. There is a sense of stability and permanence as well as a buzzing and catching energy of promise and beginnings, thanks to the presence of thousands of young adults. At a place such as Virgina Tech (est. 1872) or my alma mater and workplace, Queen's (est. 1841) there is a strong sense of being rooted and connected to a past through traditions in academics and sports.

Our students come to our campuses with dreams and hopes and we pledge to keep them safe and nurture them to the best of our ability. Our hearts break to imagine having one of our bright sparks go to darkness in a farmer's field.

*The September 2009 on-campus murder of Annie Le, a Vietnamese-American, did indeed garner broad media coverage but most likely because she was a graduate student at Yale.

January 22, 2010

Singing New York

New York has been the focus of so many great songs over the years, and our recent trip had me so inspired by the Big Apple that I thought I would share some of my favourites...

"Empire State of Mind"- Jay-Z & Alicia Keys

"City of Blinding Lights"- U2

"The 59th Street Bridge Song" - Simon & Garfunkel

"Englishman in New York"- Sting

"New York, New York"-Frank Sinatra

"The Light Dies Down on Broadway" - Genesis

"Summer in the City" - Lovin' Spoonful

January 14, 2010

Now that's old school!

Here is a short promotional video for Queen's University that was made in the early 1940s. I am not sure of the exact date but the film makes reference to the "recent" visit of FDR, which was in 1938 and it also features Principal Wallace, who was our fearless leader from 1936-1951. You'll have a good laugh at the music, typical for the time, and snicker uncomfortably at the gender-biased language.

Still, for all of the use of "men", "man" and "him", there is a definitely a sense that women were an important part of Queen's during the period. Women are referred to and pictured quite a few occasions in the film, which is not really all that surprising since women were first admitted to degree programs at Queen's in 1878, well ahead of many of our Canadian and American peers (the first 2 women in Ontario to receive university degrees graduated from Queen's!).

In any event, "Paths of Learning" is terribly dated in so many ways but it remains an important artifact of social history. As a graduate of Queen's this film also links me to part of our history and tradition, which I find interesting, warts and all.

January 13, 2010

A university degree in 5 minutes

Here's a classic SNL sketch featuring Father Guido Sarducci (played by comic Don Novello), whereupon he proposes how he will set up a college that educates and laureates its students all in 5 minutes. Some retro food-for-thought as our universities try and figure out how to solve their nearly immeasurable problems...

January 8, 2010

Classical Grapes

When Mark and I were in Tuscany this past August we had a private tour of Il Paradiso Di Frassina winery. Not only was it a special experience for us, as we walked amidst the vineyards nestled in a valley near Montalcino but we were struck to learn that the estate's owner plays classical music to the grape plants.

He firmly believes that the plants are not only happier but also grow stronger and are healthier than plants who do not have the opportunity to "listen" to music. Check out a profile on the vineyard on CNN.

He is not alone either, as the estate is now home to a serious research study by a couple of Italian universities. All I can say is that after a private tasting in the cellar, we promptly bought a bottle of "12 Uve" (Mark just loved this wine) and also a bottle of the more famous 2004 "Brunello di Montalcino". We drank the first one during our last night in Italy (sniff, sniff) and brought the Brunello home. It sits in our wine cabinet, awaiting a special ocassion.

January 7, 2010

The most underrated U2 songs

I wanted to return to a subject I love, and that is the music of U2. As they begin their fourth decade as a band (with the same line-up!) I thought I would take a look at their wonderful back catalogue and select the most underrated (or overlooked) U2 songs. Since there were too many to choose from I elected to share the most underrated from each studio album.

Ultraviolet Light (1991)
Hard to be a very good song on what it certainly U2's best album, "Achtung Baby". That outstanding record was chock full of era-defining songs so "Ultraviolet Light" ended up being sadly overlooked by many. It is a testament to the song's quality that U2 brought it back from the dead on their 2009 tour.

A Day Without Me (1980)
Dedicated to the late Ian Curtis of Joy Division, this song appeared on U2's debut album "Boy". Enjoy vintage The Edge guitar and a soulful lyric delivered from a very young Bono.

Gone (1997)
This song appeared on U2's most maligned album, "Pop". In fact, I think "Pop" is U2's most underrated album, and "Gone" grabbed me instantly and remains a favourite. So, take a listen and keep reminding yourself that this song is 13 years old. This song was simply way ahead of its time.

Fire (1981)
In 1981 U2 released their sophomore album, "October", and nobody knew what to make of it. After "Pop" it's certainly U2's most underrated album. I happen to believe that it is U2's most sonically cohesive album, and it has some gorgeous melodies. "Fire" was forgotten by all but the oldest fans, and we're gonna bring it back.

Heartland (1988)
Gorgeous. Simply effing gorgeous. Completely overlooked diamond on the "Rattle and Hum" double album. A paean to middle America of the 1980s.

Wire (1984)
This is a little gem on "The Unforgettable Fire" that got lost in the global frenzy for "Pride" and "Bad" thanks to the Conspiracy of Hope tour and Live Aid spectacle. It comes in with a whisper and leaves with a bang.

Original of the Species (2004)
From "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" I will frequently catch myself singing the unforgettable chorus. Written for the band's daughters it is a personal and moving song.

Drowning Man (1983)
This song on "War" was completely buried under the rubble thanks to "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day". I happen to think that "War" is U2's most overrated album (yes, you read that correctly) which makes the fact that this song was never heard again an even greater tragedy. "Drowning Man" is highly sophisticated and a complex piece, made extra special by some lovely strings.

Mothers of the Disappeared (1987)
This song closes U2's most beloved album, "The Joshua Tree". And yet, for all of the attention and play this magnificent album still gets, most of the light shines on the first three songs. This is one of the most beautiful and poignant songs the band has ever composed. The last half of the song just takes you somewhere else.

When I Look at the World (2000)
I was sad that this song on "All That You Can't Leave Behind" got no radio play. Perhaps it might be a tad U2-by-numbers but maybe that's not a bad thing. I like not just the sound but the almost resigned lyric, uncommon for Bono. Buried under the glum is a spark of hope.

Dirty Day (1993)
U2 recorded "Zooropa" during and just after their groundbreaking ZOO TV tour. It was meant to be a smaller EP for fans but became a full LP. Amidst the wonderful noise was this treat of a song. It was later reinterpreted live to great effect but I remain fond of the studio cut.

Stand Up Comedy (2009)
For all those who think U2 has morphed into a adult contemporary act, check out this song from "No Line on the Horizon" where The Edge channels the ghosts of classic '70s rock past and blows up the amps. I am still shocked that this was not played on the 2009 tour.

January 5, 2010

Dubai's Tower of Babel

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. Genesis 11:1-9

Today the Emirate of Dubai gave the most lavish opening ceremony with the greatest fireworks show ever created to formally announce the (ahem) erection of the world's tallest phallic symbol, the Burj Dubai.

Forget Texas. Only Dubai really does it big. There is no one in the tiny emirate that is not obsessed with superlatives. On a day when Dubai gets global media attention for its astounding engineering marvel, it seems we were asked to completely forget the financial troubles of the emirate as well as the questionable labour practices that enabled the tower to be built. Instead, we are to marvel at the world's highest observation deck, inhabited floor, pool, and mosque.

Dubai has made bestest, mostest, greatest, biggest, grandest its complete modis operandi, what with the Palm Jumeirah island, the Burj Al Arab hotel, the Dubai Mall, etc. One wonders what else Dubai can possibly build to impress its seemingly endless need for approval and self-congratulation.

It was also announced today that the tower would be renamed the Burj Khalifa after the president of the UAE, although it probably should have been more accurately renamed the Burj Hubris.

January 4, 2010

Torch Song Tribute

As Mark and I closed off 2009 in New York City we really connected with the gay core of the City. We spent time in the heart of historic gay New York, the wonderful Greenwich Village (site of gay liberation in the 1970s and the primary gay area of the 1980s), and then in Chelsea (the new boystown of the 1990s), and finally in Hells Kitchen (the up-to-the-minute gayborhood).

In each neighborhood we hit the best piano bars, the locus of gay sentimentality, humour, and wit. It's hard to imagine New York or even the U.S. without the pathos of the Great American Songbook (thanks Cole Porter!) and the dreams of Broadway (thanks Leonard Bernstein!). I am not sure why exactly that gay men were so drawn to write and celebrate torch songs but it was evident that song remains very important for gay men to share, cry, and celebrate.

The most moving experience was at Marie's Crisis in the Village, where off-Broadway stars and regulars alike mingle and sing the best of show tunes and standards. We were treated to some exceptional chanteuses and we all felt like members of the chorus of a Broadway show.

So, in tribute to the great songs that have served as the clarion call for gay men across the ages, here is a list of my all-time favourite torch songs:

"Send in the Clowns"
Stephen Sondheim's classic from his musical "A Little Night Music" (1973). I have provided my favourite version, sung by the inimitable Sarah Vaughan.

Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Leonard Bernstein (music) created this Broadway classic for "West Side Story"(1957). In my mind this was never better sung by anyone other than Ms. Barbra Streisand.

"I am what I am"
Written by Jerry Herman for the Broadway musical version of "La Cage aux Folles" (1983) this song is the finale of act 1. While written originally for a man to sing (as the character is a gay man who dresses in drag) this version by Welsh singer Shirley Bassey always makes me cry.

" The Man I Love"
The Gershwin brothers gave us this gem in 1927, and I am very fond of this interpretation by the great Ella Fitzgerald.

"Happy Days are Here Again"
Written in 1929 this Tin Pan Alley standard was redefined by Barbra Streisand in this outstanding 1965 performance.

"The Man that Got Away"
Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics for this song for the movie "A Star is Born" in 1954. In my mind there is only one version of this song, delivered exceptionally by the star herself, Judy Garland.

While originally a Broadway play most folks are more familiar with the 1972 film starring Liza Minelli, from which this performance originates. This was hugely popular in the piano bars and the whole place would join in.

From the musical 1935 "Porgy and Bess" and written by Ira Gershwin. Given its age, hundreds of singers have interpreted this classic, from Billie Holliday to Ella Fitzgerald and up to Leona Lewis. For my money, the best version is from 1969 by none other than Janis Joplin.

"Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye"
Cole Porter's 1944 standard is especially heart-breaking when sung by the melancholic and incomparable Nina Simone.

January 1, 2010

New Years in New York


We've just returned from four days in New York City. It was a grand adventure and we had a marvellous time with our friends Patrick and Raymond.

Highlights include an amazing French dinner at the legendary Chez Josephine in Hells Kitchen, and a superb Italian meal at Bar Pitti in Greenwich Village.

Geeks worldwide will be super envious to learn that the absolutely stunning Famke Janssen (Jean Grey/Phoenix in the "X-Men" franchise) was our dining neighbour at Bar Pitti. As she was barely two feet from us, it took all all of our mutant powers not to gush praise but since we are good Canadian geeks...er...boys, we respected her privacy. When we left Mark chatted with her briefly and I said a quick hello. I can honestly report that she is far more beautiful in person. We were star struck and giddy. The next day we spotted Oliver Platt ("2012", "Frost/Nixon","The West Wing") right outside our hotel.

As for night life we had a gay old time at ultra-hip Therapy in Hell's Kitchen, we sang show tunes with off Broadway stars at Marie's Crisis in the West Village, and then we rang in the New Year with the upscale professional set at the refined Townhouse Bar in Upper Midtown East.

Our must-see for this NYC trip was the Tim Burton exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) which was spectacular and incredibly inspiring. With some 700 items the exhibition traced Burton's unique vision and style from his teenage years to the upcoming "Alice in Wonderland" motion picture. We played it smart and arrived at 8:50 a.m. to line up for the 9:30 museum opening, and were among the first to get in ahead of what looked like 5,000 people by the time we were leaving.

We're planning to head back to NYC in May to escort our very special (and gorgeous) Mara on her first trip to the City. We can't wait.