Friday, November 30, 2012

The King of New York

When your boss comes storming into the office one morning, breathless and late by even his usual standards, and barks at you to stop immediately what you're doing your attention will be captured.

When the urgency to immediately watch a video tape, recorded the night before on a German satellite TV channel and featuring someone called "Popa Chubby", you begin to splutter nervously, it being 10 in the morning and you're in an open-plan, mixed-gender office, and all.

However, this is the Tuesday morning in 1997 when I was introduced - somewhat forcibly and via a hastily taped recording - of perhaps the most exciting blues guitarist either of us had ever encountered. Then or since.

Popa Chubby (as in "pop a..." - work it out for yourself) is, by his given name, Bronx, New York-born Ted Horovitz. A colossal individual with a talent to match, and an early history that walked the sort of path from which blues music is traditionally spawned.

The blues have a long reach: in the early 1960s they arrived in the London suburbs, other English cities like Newcastle, Birmingham and Manchester, and to northern Germany, where a visiting bunch of Liverpool lads added it to their canon of influences. The blues spread from the American Deep South up the Mississippi to Chicago. They even found their way to New York City, where they ran into the teenage Horovitz.

Apparently self-raised from the age of seven, when his candy store-owning father passed away, in his teens Horovitz took, initiatlly, to the drums and then guitar, embracing the blues and classic rock of Led Zeppellin (and, I suspect, Humble Pie), the Rolling Stones, Cream and Jimi Hendrix, of whom he retains a particular passion for today. In his late teens, New York City became the fulcrum of Horovitz's life, the mid-70s punk scene in particular providing a life and even a living, and, eventually, the dependency of a lengthy heroin addiction.

"Right from the start I was taught about rock'n'roll as theatre," Horovitz says, citing a performance artist called Screaming Mad George as a heavy influence, along with the other bands appearing at legendary club CBGBs at the time, such as The Ramones, the Cramps and Richard Hell, whose band, the Voidoids, Horovitz even joined. The spirit, he says, was that "...rock'n'roll should be dangerous. Musicians like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols weren't just bands. They were a threat to society!".

Like so many of his blues heroes, however, Horovitz channelled life's very real experiences through the six strings of his guitar, emerging in 1990 as Popa Chubby, an utterly unique performer, but one who also captured the creative expression of Jimi Hendrix, the explosive chops of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the down-home raw honesty of Rory Gallagher in his prime.

By the time I came across Chubby in 1997, he already had a prolific catalogue of albums under his belt, including his debut, It's Chubby Time, which featured early favourites in the Chubby band's stage set like Sweet Goddess Of Love And Beer and Stoop Down Baby. By the time of my Tuesday morning epiphany, Popa Chubby was already established name as a purveyor of, as a Dutch magazine recently put it, "aggressive, sweaty and filthy blues".

It has taken me 15 years to finally catch up with Popa Chubby in the flesh, so to speak. For a decade and a half, fate conspired to ensure that whenever a Chubby gig was taking place somewhere I should be able to get to, something ensured I was somewhere else entirely.

So, with purpose, I made a point of being in Hamburg last Saturday night for a show that met with a Saxon welcome as enthusiastic as that which I saw on that video tape a decade and a half earlier.

Having learned his chops in the pubs of New York City, places with names like Manny's Car Wash, as well as at blues bars and festivals across the US, Fabrik in Hamburg is a comfortable fit.

A former factory, it now resembles one of those wooden-framed rural country and western dives you find throughout the American Mid-West.

Which made Saturday's audience - a mix of jet black BMW-driving corporate affluence and beer-chugging biker boys - all the more amusing to observe. The clipped, older punters nodded their heads conservatively to the raw and raucous blues the Popa Chubby Band powered through, while the biker boys merrily quaffed more brew and got on with enjoying themselves as if Oktoberfest had moved north after leaving Munich in its wake.

Looking at the 52-year-old, 300-pound, shaven-headed and ultra-tattooed Horovitz today, you could say that he still conveys the threat to society of his punk influences. But this is, still, rock'n'roll theatre. You get the sense that, just as Hulk Hogan in person will disarmingly say, "Brother, call me Terry"), there is a careful balance going on between Popa Chubby the character and Ted Horovitz the artist.

Somewhere near the surface resides a very earnest blues performer, with a repertoire spanning the blues genres - bar-room, Delta, Chicago, Texan - and throwing into the mix Bach and stunningly different version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow (covered by many as a saccharine ballad, performed here as a demonstration of fretboard virtuosity, subtlety and shade).

To demonstrate further the blues' geographic spread, from the dusty Clarksdale drawl of Robert Johnson to the Texan swing of ZZ Top, Popa Chubby's own repertoire covers much the same ground. An innovative, wah-wah-heavy take on BB King's Rock Me Baby encountered a more traditional approach to Muddy Waters' Hoochie Coochie Man.

That said, you still have to remember that this is a Bronx native playing his blues through the filter of a punk upbringing. But like Fun Loving Criminal and fellow New Yorker, Huey Morgan, there's more going on with Popa Chubby than just theatricality. His stage presence offers light and shade: one minute, a snarling Bronxite, the next a broad entertainer, dueting with guest vocalist Sari Schorr on an enjoyably chugging version of Etta James' I Just Want To Make Love To You.

With a clear love of Jimi Hendrix (what started as a set at a tribute show turned into a set of Electric Chubbyland CDs featuring the most definitive Hendrix covers I've ever heard), the Fabrik audience were treated to blistering versions of Hey Joe, Purple Haze, The Wind Cries Mary and, later into the set, a stunning version of Voodoo Chile.

The fact that the Popa Chubby Band - comprising Erik Boyd on bass and former Rollins Band drummer Simeon Cain, together with Horovitz - perfectly resembles the Jimi Hendrix Experience didn't get lost on me.

Eric Clapton, in his carefully constructed late-middle age Armani chic, Chubby is not. Nor does this man mountain, with a preposterously good gift for making a battered '66 Stratocaster sing and dance, conform to your expectations of a Bronx-raised, Jewish New Yorker. In his hands, the Strat can be either a weapon, the most delicate of instruments, or an expansive, room filling, polyphony.

15 years ago in in London I seem to recall using the word "extraordinary" an awful lot as we sat through that video tape. In my head, I kept hearing those same words all through Saturday night. And you will, too. So, if the chance comes your way, if Popa Chubby comes your way, or if you can come Popa Chubby's way, don't leave it as long as I did. Go and see the man, and enjoy a remarkable live experience.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

From Russia With Impatience

With his scruffy little beard and penchant for cheap-looking nylon leisurewear, the multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich doesn't exactly cut the image of a prototypical James Bond villain.

He may not (to my knowledge) possess a white Persian cat, which he strokes for camp and menacing effect, but like 007's nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Abramovich is clearly capable of dispatching underlings whenever the whim takes him.

So here we are again. Another November, another dip in form, and another Chelsea manager looking for work. Roberto Di Matteo took a decent and dignified stride in his brief managerial tenure at Stamford Bridge. But from the moment he was euphemistically installed as "interim first team coach" he knew he wasn't exactly the anointed one. He may even have been another 'dead man walking', as Victim No.1, Claudio Ranieri, referred to himself.

Go back two managers, which in Chelsea years means to last March, and Abramovich had grown impatient with his bizarre gamble - football's very own Charlie Buckett, Andreas Villas-Boas - and in looking for a replacement was desperate for Barcelona's Pep Guardiola. But with the 41-year-old Catalan making clear he was, at season's end, taking a year's sabbatical in New York with his family, the unemployed Rafa Benitez was being fitted up for a temporary spell in the manager's chair.

But when Benitez threw one of his customary hissy fits at the prospect of being a mere seat warmer, Abramovich had no option but to install, quickly, the popular old boy, Di Matteo. The club's history of appointing from within has not always gone well: Ruud Gullitt and Gianluca Vialli both fell foul of Ken Bates over money, while Ray Wilkins felt the sharp end of Abramovich's sword for, it would appear, looking at the Russian the wrong way.

Di Matteo - a club hero still for scoring the fastest FA Cup Final goal after 47 seconds of the 1997 final - had been AVB's assistant, fulfilling a role similar to that Wilkins had been employed for at Carlo Ancelotti's side - a link to the club's history for both fans and players.

But in being condescendingly titled Interim First Team Coach, it was clear that Di Matteo was only installed by default.

How embarrassing, then, that he should go on and end Chelsea's desperate hunt for the European Cup, land yet another FA Cup trophy at the same time, and galvanise a fractured dressing room.

Perhaps Chelsea had to accept a moral obligation to give Di Matteo the job full-time after all that. Drop him then and Chelsea's reputation for lousy manager management would have made the club toxic for anyone else to become interested - least of all, Pep Guardiola.

Abramovich had been making overtures to Guardiola again in the run up to Di Matteo's sacking. But this obsession with landing him is turning the Russian into the greatest stalker since Max Cady came after Sam Bowden and his family. And he's done it before: so the story goes, Abramovich fell in love with football by watching AC Milan, and set about buying the club. With that not possible, he set about recreating the club by buying Chelsea and installing Andrei Schevchenko, the rossoneri's star striker, while trying to lure Carlo Ancelotti as coach,

He didn't, but then he got Jose Mourinho, and that didn't work out too badly. Or, at least, until Chelsea's results started to go "in the wrong direction", the self-same excuse given for firing Di Matteo. Like Mourinho, Di Matteo delivered silverware and good times for the club. But as soon as things started to cool off - i.e. results went against them - they were summarily fired by the itchiest trigger finger since Dirty Harry.

Abramovich, then, has a totally unrealistic level of expectation. But he also appears to lack strong leadership and footballing advice around him. There's a reason why Manchester United are the most successful football club in history - it's because they've had the same manager for 25 years, who has built, invested and reinvested in consistency and excellence. Personally I loathe the old Scottish git, Alex Ferguson, but you could never knock his record, or indeed his club's ongoing support for him.

For Chelsea, eight managers in as many years is not only inconsistent, it's an embarassment. We want success and we've had success. We want our club to be led by a dynamic manager whom we can get behind. We had that in Mourinho, we had that in Guus Hiddink, we had that in Ancelotti and we could have had that in Di Matteo.

But, from now until the end of this season (and, it is claimed, with an extension to next season if "mutually acceptable"), Chelsea will be managed by the most divisive managerial appointment it would have been possible to appoint: Benitez.

You may, already, sense some antagonism towards Benitez. That's because many Chelsea fans consider him a tactical fool, more interested in defensive formations and squad rotation than anywhere near the attractive, free-flowing attacking football Abramovich himself is said to desire.

It's also because he spent an inordinate amount of time as Liverpool manager winding up Chelsea fans and, especially, Mourinho, and then behaving like an emotionally challenged teenager whenever things went wrong. He's been out of work for two years, with only a short spell at Internazionale since leaving Liverpool. That speaks volumes.

Abramovich has, at times, treated Chelsea like a plaything. When he's pumped more than £1 billion into the club since 2004, that's his prerogative. But you wonder whether he has always had the best advice. Did the club really need a physically crocked Andrei Schevchenko, or a mentally and physically crocked Fernando Torres, each for vastly inflated transfer fees and equally inflated wages?

The problem is impulsiveness and impatience. If Roman wants a bigger yacht, he orders it. Bigger mansion? He knocks through the rest of the street. This has been the 'see it, want it' nature of his ownership of Chelsea (which isn't that dissimilar to the way many Premier League players splash the cash around). More than just an oligarch, like some emperor acquiring lands at will, he has made some ridiculously rash decisions at Chelsea.

Benitez is going to have to endure six months of indifference and hostility from Chelsea fans. Even after Di Matteo had been appointed in March, Chelsea fans still let it be known at Di Matteo's first home game in charge that Benitez wasn't and would never be welcome. And so here he is, like the frog in Peter Gabriel's song Kiss That Frog "all puffed up, wanna be your king".

At any other club, the sort of success Di Matteo brought in just 167 days in charge would have had his name emblazoned above a new stand at the stadium. But not at Chelsea. This is a club which, for all you or I know, may have fired Benitez before he's even begun, and hired - and fired - his replacement.

Benitez has a rough ride ahead of him. Even if he does well, he'll be out on his ear as soon as you know it. Pep Guardiola knows it too. Just as Ancelotti was the coveted one, once, there is no life expectancy at Chelsea. And if he has any sense, Guardiola would give Chelsea one almighty swerve.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

A guide to Sicily that only mentions the you-know-what twice

© Simon Poulter 2012

Welcome to the thick of Autumn. Summer Time has officially ended and the first frozen fingers of Winter have already caused "travel misery" in Europe. Across the northern hemisphere, firewood and electricity bills are being stockpiled for the chilly weeks between now and the next hosepipe ban, which should be declared around March.

For most people who took a summer holiday this year, memories will have evaporated as fast as that small epithelial rug of peeled skin that formed beneath them. All this means it's time to start thinking about your next holiday, if for no other reason as warming autumnal spirits like a 40-tog onesie.

My own summer escape this year took place, as usual, in September, when it is still summer enough to feel summery, but with the majority of tourists back home packing children off to school. For me, it has historically been the perfect time for a summer break. Most places are still warm and sunny, hotel staff appear generally relaxed, and for the impatient, must-see attractions are unimpaired by the midsummer hordes.

© Simon Poulter 2012
Apropos of any particular reason, apart from the fact I like the place, I returned to Sicily, that flaccid rugby ball perched on the toe of Italy's stiletto-healed boot.

Extending Europe to within 100 miles of Africa, and covering an area almost the size of Belgium, Sicily ticks all the boxes an Italianophile might seek - warm sun, beautiful beaches, dramatic scenery, Mediterranean ambiance, gallons of history and a richness of culture.

September and October are also, in my view, the best months to visit the island. The searing mid-Summer heat it shares with its African neighbours will have subsided somewhat, as will the crowds that flock here from Italy's northern reaches, presumably to escape the posh Brits in their Jags and panama hats who, each summer, turn Tuscany into a branch office of Chipping Norton.

September is, according to statistics, notorious for two life-changing events: firstly, it is second only to January for divorce spikes as, clearly, two weeks of enforced togetherness is too much for some. Secondly, September is when more people decide to change job or career than at any other time in the year.

Visiting Sicily, however, is unlikely to have you to jack in your moribund accounting job to live the dream as one of the island's traffic police, parking inspectors, road standards managers, driving instructors, highway code authors or refuse collectors.

Because Sicily contains, apparently, the most under-policed highways (many of which are more pothole than road), while chronically lacking anything resembling parking skills. And for all its natural beauty, every thoroughfare on the island seems to be uniformly decorated with piles of uncollected rubbish in plastic bags.

All of which is a shame, really. Because before you've sampled the sumptuous wines, smelled the aroma of freshly grilled swordfish, or marvelled at the breathtaking landscapes that undulate throughout the Sicilian interior, you will have had your wits scared out of you by the drive to your hotel.

Once you've been on the island for 48 hours, however, you soon assimilate into the local driving habits. You may not come away feeling particularly proud, but at least you feel like you've both blended in and let your inner lunatic Italian driver out. And, on top of this, assuming you get to the hotel in one piece in the first place, Sicily will reward you with the some of the  warmest hospitality in the Mediterranean.

Sicily is an island of some complexity and more than a little mystery. It's an autonomous region of Italy, and yet at times you feel that you're not a part of Italy at all. At its narrowest, the gap between Messina and the Italian mainland is only three kilometres wide, but the distance between Italians and Sicilians is far greater.

© Simon Poulter 2012
Being large enough to consider itself a country in its own right. locals revel in their autonomy. But that independence may be more a product of the island's history of ownership, the deeds of which have been passed from one absentee landlord to another, from the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans, to the Moors, Byzantines,  Spanish and Normans.

Sicily has, obviously, long been a huge strategic prize, a large lump of half-volcanic rock jutting into the Mediterranean and well endowed agriculturally (and, latterly, in other resources worth plundering).

The Allies in 1943 chose it to mount the first major take-back in Europe against the Axis forces, with General Patton famously invading along the southern-coast. Rumours have rarely subsided since that the Mafia helped his advance. Whether that was the case or not, there are still signs of flimsy German and Italian defences dotted along the island's southern rim, from Syracuse to Agrigento, with pill boxes and bombed-out, bullet hole-ridden buildings in evidence still today.

© Simon Poulter 2012
Sicily's more interesting history, however, stretches back much further. Having first been settled by Sicanians from Iberia, Trojans from Libya and then Siculians from the Italian mainland, all so far back vinyl was still the preferred medium for recorded music, Sicily is rife with heritage, if you go looking for it.

Some of it is obvious, like the stunning, partial remains of Greek temples at Agrigento, or the eight UNESCO World Heritage of Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli.

Noto, Ragusa and their provincial capital, Syracuse, are amongst the undisputed highlights of Sicily's south-eastern hump, an area rich in forests, valleys and olive and lemon orchards, as well as these stunning towns that were rebuilt to pristine condition after a massive earthquake in 1693.

© Simon Poulter 2012
Noto is breathtakingly beautiful. Situated in an area first settled during the Bronze Age, and the adminstrative centre of the Val di Noto since the Arab occupation, the city was completely flattened by the earthquake.

It was rebuilt, literally from the ground up, some 12km from the city's original location, exclusively adopting the Baroque architectural style prevalent in 17th Century Italy.

Entering via the Porta Reale, the city's main gate on its eastern side, Noto's beauty becomes instantly obvious as you wal up Vittorio Emanuele, the Church of San Francesco to your right and, further down, Piazza Municipio and the Noto town hall, Palazzo Ducezio.

Heading back out of the Val di Noto and into the Sicilian interior, you head towards the towering city of Enna. I say towering as it sits on top of a 1200-metre summit, like a giant lookout post erected in the middle of the island. Unsurprisingly, this mountain-hugging city has been besieged more than any of Sicily's much-fought over territories, and one can't help being reminded of Edoras in Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings, towering over the vast plains of Sicily's interior.

© Simon Poulter 2012

They say that on a clear day you can see the entire island from the citadel at the top of Enna. It's certainly possible to see across to the east and the permanently smoking chimney that its Mount Etna, Europe's only active volcano.

To the south you can make out the grim oil refinery at Gela, a much-needed employer in Sicily's increasingly impoverished southern half, but still a visual blight on the coastline. To the north you should be able to see towards the Palermo coast, but given the size of the island, it's optimistic at best to hope to see much further than the hills around Corleone. Yes, that Corleone.

Which brings me back to the Sicilian driving culture. Speed limits are, much like red lights in Amsterdam, more of a suggestion than an enforcement: the polizia stradale does exist, but like hen's teeth.

Their speed traps, too, are bafflingly predictable: see a bridge coming up? Slow down. If a pair of constables are waiting for you, they'll be doing so conspicuously, under the bridge with their Alfa's tailgate up. The officers themselves will be standing around smoking, talking animatedly and admiring their over-polished caps and sunglasses in the windows of their vehicle. As you zoom past.

However, should you find yourself driving too slowly for the tastes of a local, you'll soon know about it. Overtaking in Sicily is something of an art form, a skill that sits somewhere between using The Force and possessing the flying skills of pilots in the Red Arrows' Synchro Pair.

White lines, double white lines and no overtaking signs are mere decoration. If you are deemed to be driving too slowly, regardless of your place within or outside the speed limit, you'll be overtaken. The vehicle overtaking you will be of indeterminate age or roadworthiness, but you will be passed. This is fine, until you encounter a motorist overtaking someone else coming towards you. On a fast bend. Which you haven't yet gone round.

It's at such moments that you actively consider the possibility that those piles of rubbish everywhere are in fact crash barriers, much like the tyre wall on a Formula 1 circuit  and have been benevolently left - replete with fetid contents - to absorb the force of your hire car being forced into it by an oily-haired male wearing oversized Aviators.

Regardless of which side you choose to drive, some of Sicily's roads are truly awful. That said, there also some truly wonderful driving roads that the island's breathtaking interior, winding in and out of the hills, mountains and moors before crossing bridges that span vast, chasms of draw-dropping, Monica Belucci-cleavage depth.

Some are so high, such as the Guerrieri bridge at Modica, you see towns far below you, giving you the closest experience to flying a car short of joining Bo and Luke Duke for an afternoon out in the family ride.

It does make you wonder how a nation which, in an earlier form, developed almost half a million kilometres of roads to improve communications throughout its empire, and which turned bridge building into an art as much as an engineering skill, could now have roads in such indecent repair that you understand why even the most modest of hill villages has a small platoon of car mechanics.

The Sicilian driving experience is a decidedly clutch-testing application of all gears your car might possess. With the exception of reverse: stopping in towns rarely seems to require the application of parallel parking skills. On any street - especially those main thoroughfares that cut through each town, you pull in nose-first as soon as you see a space, and without any consideration for whoever might be behind you, or for the fact that you've left your backside out in the middle of traffic for the duration of your pitstop to grab groceries or a quick espresso. Quite why Italian drivers need any more stimulation eludes me.

These are, however, relatively minor gripes. There are worse things to complain about. Sicily is a beautiful island, and its people warm and welcoming. But it is an island being dragged increasingly into poverty.
Graphic courtesy of Business Week.

The small mountains of rubbish everywhere, while not as bad as the refuse crisis that engulfed Naples some years back, is still an unfathomable eyesore. Everywhere there are half-finished buildings, construction projects that appeared to have stopped abruptly.

It's not uncommon to see a row of shops with the skeleton of three or four stories of unbuilt apartments above them, looking for all the world like buildings shelled by heavy armour, but in reality have just suffered from a downing of tools. What - or perhaps whom - is the cause is never clear. Some blame the economy, some blame the unions, some blame the Mafia, some blame the government.

A recent Business Week article, Sicily, a Portrait of Italian Dysfunction, noted that the town of Giarre on the eastern slopes of Mount Etna today boasts 27,000 incomplete building projects - the most in Italy and the equivalent of two-and-a-half for every 100 residents.

Five years since my last visit to Sicily, and the signs of Italy's economic struggle loom large. Myriad restaurants and pizzeria that sit in every town and dotted along the highways stand empty and abandoned. Even for September, when most of the tourist trade has gone home, there is a weariness about some bar owners, as if they'd rather be closed than taking in business from the occasional visitor that calls in looking for a cheap meal.

It can be - and is - at times depressing to see Sicily like this. But if you can ignore the increasing signs of man-made shabbiness, there is so much to love about this island. What it lacks in the party spirit of the other rocks that dot the Mediterranean it more than makes up for in culture and heritage and more.

My two weeks there last September were two of the most relaxing two weeks I've ever spent on holiday. That's the magic of Sicily: if you want to go tearing about in a hire car for a couple of adrenalin-rushed weeks, it's there for you. If you just want to sit on a quiet, secluded beach, reading a book to the sound of the sea gently washing ashore, it's there for you too. Either way, you'll never get bored.

© Simon Poulter 2012