It’s Raining Men.

R.I.P., Izora Armstead, 19?? – 2004, dead of heart failure in San Francisco. She was a member (along with Martha Wash) of the Weather Girls (credited as Two Tons of Fun when they did backing vocals on Sylvester’s “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real”), the original singers of “It’s Raining Men.”
She had 11 children.


My iBook died. I took it to the Apple Man, and he sent it to the iBook Patch for eleven days. Eleven emailless days = fabulous and terrifying.

Last Friday, I went out to San Francisco to open for Karl Denson at the Fillmore. I hung out with my good man Frank Riley at a Peet’s, talking about Diane Arbus, and his days on the barricades in the 70’s. Then I walked back in the cool foggy night, ambled onstage, and played a 45-minute set during which my guitar shat the bed. I stumbled through to the end.
After, I was selling CD’s in the lobby (where they still offer free red apples to concertgoers, a tradition dating from the heyday of Bill Graham in the 60’s), talking to a couple fans. A guy walks up just as I’m telling two dudes about Ethiopia. “Oh yeah, you were in Bahar Dar, right?” says the guy. He speaks with an accent, and says “Bahar Dar” correctly–like “Bar Dar,” with big rolling R’s, so I say, Hey, are you Ethiopian?
“Yes.” We talk for a little while. “So, you enjoyed the Azmari, he sang about you?” He makes casual mention of a few other details from my journals.
You mean that you read my blog?! “Yes, I enjoyed it.” He says he’s from Sacramento, that he’s been in the US since 1999, and that he drives to San Francisco with friends for concerts occasionally.
So, are you a Karl Denson fan? “No, I’ve never heard him. I Google Ethiopia every once in a while, and I came upon your site. I saw you were playing the Fillmore, so I drove here.”
It turns out that if you Google “Ethiopia Bahar Dar” I’m on the first page! And, incredibly, if you Google “Ethiopia Azmari” I’m NUMBER ONE.

ETHIOPIA: Something I Forgot.

At the Gary Bar, my last night in Bahar Dar. Lul and Sikataw are freaking it on the dance floor to that Aster Aweke song in 3.
Suddenly, what comes on? A HOUSE REMIX OF JOHN DENVER’S “COUNTRY ROADS.” (sang by what I would sonically identify as Germans)
And the place EXPLODED. I mean, crazy crazy. Everybody in there was on the dancefloor dancing like a maniac.

ETHIOPIA 13: London Interlude

I land in London at 8 am. I hotfoot it to a place called S&M, an English comfort food joint located UNDER the Westway, where it passes over Portobello Road. S&M stands for Sausage and Mashed.
I eat an English breakfast–fried egg, mushroom, Cumberland sausage, bacon (UK bacon is a kind of midpoint between US bacon and Canadian bacon), toast, black pudding, baked beans, and LOADS of H&P brown sauce–the pinnacle of British civilization.
I ate there four times in the two days I was in London. Two breakfasts, two big plates of bangers and mashed for lunch. I am the guy who goes to England for the food.

The weather was incredible. The Londoners were all in the streets, relaxed, strolling, just chilling. I adore the English. The sky in London, the air, has some individual beauty that I can’t really describe. I was so happy to be there.
What do they have in London these days? Very small cars. I mean RIDICULOUSLY small cars. The Smart car, which you may have heard about. A tiny Mercedes, which is baffling to see. It seems like every car company is falling all over themselves trying to make a tiny car, one-upping each other on smallness. These cars make a Mini Cooper look like a ’76 Oldsmobile. And as always, there’s lots of original Mini Cooper from the 50’s and 60’s, which are so small you could fit two of them into the new Mini.
I spent the day wandering around looking at small cars, and then I went to the Tate Modern and saw the Edward Hopper exhibition, which was great, but really crowded. The Luc Tuymans show was nearly deserted, and fascinating.
What a fantastic museum; I was sighing with joy in every room. So beautifully curated, such a great mixture of old and new. I felt like I did when I was a kid going to amusement parks, when I would think: surely this is what real life should be like.
I wandered along the river after dark, past St. Paul’s, and the London Eye, and Parliament. What a gorgeous city.
I have this persistent problem when I’m in places I love; I obsessively plot how I’m going to move there. I get so wrapped up in plotting that I have to tell myself, Easy, Mike: we’re here NOW. Let’s enjoy it RIGHT NOW rather than obsess on how to enjoy it in the future.
I went to Muji and stocked up on pens and notebooks, went to Tesco and bought two liters of English lemonade, and then I flew home.

ETHIOPIA 12: Return to Addis

Daniel drives me to the airport. When he drops me off, I say, “Coke and wine!” And we dance the boxing-cabbage-patch together, me on the curb, he behind the wheel.
I’m flying to London that night at 11 pm. So, I plan on hiring a taxi for the entire day, doing all the stuff I have to do before I leave Africa.

Principally this involves souvenirs. I go and buy a bunch of nickel Ethiopian crosses for friends back in the US. Then I go to the National Museum. By law, you can’t take souvenirs out of the country without a permit, so I go to an office where they examine all these rather rinkytink souvenirs, fill out a form, wrap them and tape them up, give them official stamps.
It seems like a bizarre formality, but it makes sense; all those ancient crosses, crowns, and books kept out in the open, or in shacks behind the churches. A Belgian tourist almost got out of the country with a golden cross from Lalibela a few years ago.
Apparently UNESCO keeps complaining about the sorry state of security and artifacts in Ethiopia. But I think it’s very cool. Priests are still reading those books. How great that my guide in Lalibela tells me a cross was made 800 years ago, and then leans down to kiss and be blessed by the same cross? It’s a living tradition. People have been kissing that cross for 800 years.
I go buy some books, I eat some lunch. I have so much time to kill that I end up tagging along while the taxi driver takes care of some errands. At dusk, he drives me up a hill to the north of the city, past the US Embassy, which is a fearsomely guarded, walled, prison-like behemoth.
He parks up on an avenue overlooking Addis Ababa, and I take a walk. Past a church, singing voices emanating from a loudspeaker, a painting of the Selassie–the three identical bearded men–presiding. Children run up yelling, “Faranji!” wanting to shake my hand. College-age girls smile at me, and when I smile back, they erupt in laughter.
He drives me to the airport and I fly to London.

ETHIOPIA 11: Return to Bahar Dar

I fly back to Addis Ababa, sleep a night, and then fly back to Bahar Dar, where again I’m on the lake, with Lul, asking me, “Mike! Are you fine?”
I hang out by the lake with a guy from the hotel named Genanew, a high school history teacher who gave that up for a more profitable career in guiding. He asks me about “the sisterly buildings.” The sisterly buildings? Oh. He means the World Trade Center.

I ask him if the Tigrinyans in Axum and the North of Ethiopia feels a kinship with Eritrea, due to the common language. I get a 45 minute history of Tigrinyan resistance movements, and a highly biased account of the Eritrean war, in which he glosses over Ethiopia’s annexation of Eritrea in the 60’s, and depicts the Eritreans as the aggressors in the 90’s. “They are like Nazis,” he says. “They want to be the master race of the Horn of Africa.”
“Eritrea think you can make a country with blood and iron,” Genanew says, “but Ethiopia know you can make a country only with loving.”
I meet a guy on the verandah named Hunachew, a man in his sixties who lived in Sweden for 33 years. He moved back to Ethiopia due to an old injury that would flare up in the Scandinavian cold. He lives on his Swedish pension, a pretty sweet deal in impoverished Ethiopia.
We talk about the time he saw Jimi Hendrix play, in Malmo. I meet his wife–his third, two Swedes divorced him–a younger woman with traditional Ethiopian cross tattoos on her cheek and forehead. He talks about Aretha Franklin, the certainty of life on other planets, cyclical famine, his job as a clerk in the Physics Department of a Swedish university.
“My life today is nothing but reading, smoking, having coffee,” he says. There is a tattered paperback in front of him; an Amharic translation of Chekhov’s short stories. “I’ve read them in Swedish and English already.”
That night I go back to the Azmari bar with a lovely guide named Sakitaw, and Genanew, Daniel the driver, and my beloved Lul. The place is packed. There are a couple of hottie African-American girls in the house, actually; they just came to Bahar Dar to speak English. They’re from Brooklyn, and they dress like Williamsburg hipsters. They’re not shy about dancing; they’re wild and totally unselfconscious, and clearly the guys I’m with are transfixed.
Lul is holding my hand. That’s what you do with a friend in Ethiopia. OK, it’s weird. I go along with it.
The Brooklyn girls have brought a wild energy into the place. Everybody’s dancing. Even Lul, who claims he doesn’t dance, but two seconds later is on the floor dancing like a madman. The place is absolutely going off.
We go to a place called Gary Bar, a few doors down from John Bar. Daniel the driver orders a wine–it comes in a beer bottle–and a coke. He mixes them both in a glass. Everybody laughs at my expression of horror.
I’ve worked out a good imitation of Daniel Coke-and-Wine’s boxing-cabbage-patch dance. I do it for the fellas and they are amazed by its accuracy, rolling with laughter. For the rest of the evening, I would point to Daniel, say, “Coke and wine!” and then the two of us would do the boxing-cabbage-patch together.
Everybody gets shitfaced but me and Genanew. The dancing is getting crazy. Sikataw and Lul are losing their minds on the dancefloor. They play 50 Cent, Aster Aweke (a sexy tune in three, with undulating Rhodes piano and brilliant stabs of electric guitar leads). Minute by minute, the place gets drunker, more crowded, wilder.
A kid sitting near me, that I don’t know, taps me on the shoulder. He says: “I HATE MOTHERFUCKING WHITES. But, I think I like you.”
Thanks, man.
It’s the single incident of racial tension in my entire trip. And it has an almost touching quality. It feels insincere. It sounds like the kid heard it in a movie, and is trying it on like a kid tries on a new identity, trying to be cool.
We pile into a car and they take me back to the hotel. In the backseat, I’m between Lul and Sikataw, and they are hanging all over each other, and me; arms around my neck, holding hands, hands on knees. If he hears something funny, Sikatew laughs and gives me this very tender kiss on the neck.

ETHIOPIA 10: Axum, drumming girls

At the airport in Axum, all the clocks are stopped at 4:41. Not just one or two clocks, but ten, fifteen, throughout the terminal.
One odd thing about Ethiopia is how they do time. The day starts at 7 am, which is 1 in Ethiopian time. (whenever an Ethiopian asks me the time, or tells me to meet him someplace at some time, it’s an intricate negotiation) It seems perfectly sensible, actually, that one would wake up at one and the day would proceed from there. Rather than the sort of arcane Western system.

I have arrived in Axum on a day called Ainwari. (Eyen-WAH-ree, I have no idea what the actual spelling is) In the streets of Axum there are packs of seven to twelve year old girls, in traditional Tigrinya white dresses, prettied up with hair braided and hands dyed red. They rush out into the street banging on drums and singing, not letting strangers pass until they give them some coins.
Being a Faranji, I’m a natural target. When I go to the bank to cash traveler’s checks, I get a bunch of one birr notes to give out. It’s a little easier to get my head around, as the packs of drumming singing girls are stopping Ethiopian guys, too. There are some disconcerting moments. One pack of girls begin singing a traditional song, and then devolve into a chant, in English, of “GIVE ME MONEY! GIVE ME MONEY!”
I’ve had really good experiences with guides in Ethiopia. But I don’t want one today. I just want to see a couple of the historic sites, stroll around a little. I am beset by potential guides at every turn. “You need guide? There are seven historic sites in Axum…” No, thank you, I’m just going to walk around, I say.
This is confusing to the potential guides. I’m not sure if it’s the notion of the guides, or just the way tourists tend to operate, but when you get a guide it’s assumed that you want to see ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING THERE IS TO BE SEEN. Sometimes at breakneck pace. I’ve done this in Gondar and Lalibela; I don’t want to do it in Axum. I want to see the Stelae (obelisks), which are walking distance from my hotel (the OUTRAGEOUSLY expensive Yeha, $37.50 a room–it shocked the Belgian solar engineer that I shared an airport taxi with that I’d shell out such a sum) and some of the ruins, but mostly I’m interested in walking around this ancient, fasctinating town, watching the activities at Ainwari, and, above all, just smiling at Ethiopians and being smiled back at.
But the guides are relentless. “You need guide?” No, thanks. “I am guide. There are seven historic sites in Axum.” No. “I will come back later, maybe we go to see the…” NO. NO. NO. Finally I get really mad: GO AWAY! I yell.
I’m standing outside a church, watching women dolled up like the drumming girls are, in white dresses, walk up and kiss the doorway. There’s a hundred like-dressed women surrounding the place, for the festival day.
An old man approaches me. He’s wearing a very funky check-patterned shirt with a butterfly collar. “Give me one birr,” he says.
“You’re going to give me one birr?!” I say. “Wow! That’s great! Thank you! Give me one birr!”
An old woman behind him gets the joke and cracks up. But he persists. “I want a drink,” he says. “Give me one birr.”
“Wow, that’s SO NICE of you,” I say. “One birr for me? AWESOME.”
The old woman is guffawing.
I sit down beside a reservoir that apparently’s been in use since the days of the Queen of Sheba. A group of teenage boys surround me. I am suspicious and grumpy; they ask me questions and I give them grunted monosyllables. But they just want to talk. Really nice guys. I feel a little ashamed.
They are draped all over each other, hugging, holding hands. This is how male Ethiopian friends interact; lots of really intimate touching. It’s really heartwarming, actually.
We talk about their school, Arsenal, 50 Cent, New York, playing music for a living, the difference between Tigrinyan culture and Amharic culture (Axum is Tigrinyan, the same language as Eritrea).
“I like George Bush,” one of them says. I assume he’s trying misguidedly to win my confidences. I don’t like George Bush, I tell him. “I also like George Bush,” says another boy. “He is tough on terrorists.” Wow.

ETHIOPIA 9: One Birr, 50 Cent

I fly to Lalibela. When I land, there’s an Ethiopian guy waiting with me at the luggage carousel with a t-shirt that says: “GEISHA Perfumed Family Jelly.”
Lalibela is astonishing. A tiny town clustered around the spectacular rock-hewn churches that King Lalibela built in the 13th Century. The town feels ancient; half the structures in the town are tukuls, cylindrical thatch-roofed huts, half the people walking around are in shawls and headwraps, with staffs.

I drop my bag and guitar off at the Lal Hotel and go to a market where robed farmers, many of whom walked miles from the countryside to get to this once-a-week-event, sell brick-like blocks of salt, red honey glopped in clay jars, and tef, the grain that injera’s made from, in numerous grades, brown, red, beige, the lighter color indicating higher quality.
I hire a guide, Abaye, who takes me to the churches. “The book says it took 40,000 people to build these, but it’s not so,” he says. “These churches were built by angels.” He says it in the same matter-of-fact, scholarly tone he uses to describe dates, heights, widths, and the symbolism of the number of points on the crosses.
In each church, a priest sits patiently waiting for each tourist to be shown the facets of the structure, and then, after you tip him maybe ten birr, he brings out a couple of ceremonial crosses. Abaye is blessed by the blessing-cross in each church–a necessary religious formality–the priest touches his head with each end of the cross, and then Abaye kisses each end. Then Abaye rises to describe the crosses, and it’s invariably, “This cross was made by King ________ in the 14th Century….” !!!!
The churches are set in trenches lined with cubbyholes that used to be the graves of aristocrats. Monks sit in the empty cubbyholes now, reading, praying, contemplating. One asks me to change $1 US into birr; he was tipped that by a tourist that took his picture.
On the way to Bet Gyorgis, the most famous, cross-shaped rock-hewn church, there are children waiting to beg. “One birr,” each of them says.
“Not two birr,” jokes Abaye. “Ten birr–no good. Only one birr.”
I give out a lot of one birr notes, and pens. By the time I get to Bet Gyorgis, I’m out. An eyeless, disheveled man staggers towards me. “Hello. I am blind,” he says. He says it over and over again. I’m out of money, so I ignore him. He keeps staggering towards me. “Hello. I am blind. Hello. I am blind.” Terrifying.
That night I go to a restaurant that serves Faranji food–look, I like injera, but three times a day, seven days a week–it’s a little much. I order french fries which are, weirdly, served not with ketchup but what seemed to be tomato paste.
I’m sitting with a kid named Andalam, a high school kid, who keeps trying to get me to give him money, and I keep cheerfully refusing. He’s a gentle, sweet guy, though–that common Ethiopian dichotomy. He says there’s a contest at his school to collect foreign currency. And, quite convincingly, he pulls out a sheaf of foreign notes–Eritrean, Kenyan, Italian, Uganda. “I need US $10 and $20 to win,” he says, quite sweetly. Nice try.
I give him $1 US. “Who is this?” he asks. George Washington. “Father of George Bush?” he asks.
He talks to me about Arsenal–the English soccer team that, incongrously, all Ethiopian boys seem obsessed with–and 50 Cent. “Black American English is difficult for us to understand,” Andalam says. “He sings; Gasharby, Eezabirfay.”
What? Oh, “Go Shorty, It’s Your Birthday.” I see.

The 24

Kurt Gardner, one of the producers of the 24 Hour Plays, calls me at 10 am Monday morning, as I’m shaving. “I’ve got the curveball news of the day,” he said. “You’ve been written into one of the plays.”
So I hotfooted it to 42nd and 7th, where I was to appear with Sam Rockwell, Maria Bello, and Fisher Stevens in a ten minute one act written sometime between eleven last night and six that morning.

It was intense. I really felt like an outsider at first. I was actually IN the script, as in “Sam Rockwell enters with a guitar player.” I thought I was meant to just be a sort of disembodied musical entity, but suddenly I said, Wait. I’m actually, like, CAST in this play, as a PERSON, aren’t I?
So I was acting with Sam Rockwell. What an experience! He was pulling me aside, conspiring with me. “OK, so I’m going to sort of slide out, and I want you to make this motion as if my tie isn’t tied…what do you think? Sounds good?”
Um, yeah, sounds good. I was awestruck to be actually working with this guy, who is just a killing great actor, top of his craft. The 24 Hour Plays traditionally just uses whatever set happens to be in the theater, and this case it was the set of After The Fall–the JFK airport lounge circa 1966. Big curving modernist white forms.
Sam and I were up on a balcony, waiting to enter and walk down an elegant staircase. The story was that he would enter with a guitar player hired to woo Maria Bello, except Maria Bello was kissing Fisher Stevens, as a lark, and Sam exits, despondent. Then we reenter, and I play a waltz while Sam and Maria dance.
So we’re rehearsing on the stage, and we enter, Sam sees the kiss, he exits, I follow. And we’re off the stage, in the wings, and Sam is STILL ACTING. Staying in character, improvising dialogue. I don’t know what to do! We’re in the dark, nobody’s watching, and he is just KILLING with this art and energy. I fumbled along. It was really wonderful.
What was truly impressive was the intensity of performance in light of the tininess of Sam’s role. He had two entrances, a dance, and just two or three lines of dialogue. (Nearly every other actor in the show spent the whole day sweating bullets, running dialogue obsessively) Nonetheless, the guy worked his ASS OFF all day long; pacing, psyching himself up, digging deeply into his character. Very cool. True artistry.
I also got buttonholed by a guy directing a play with Anna Paquin, Matthew Lillard, mUMs (from Oz on HBO), and Gaby Hoffman. He wanted me to be kind of Doughty-Ex-Machina, sitting on the airport balcony above the actor, playing bits of music here and there. The cues were pretty complicated. I cut up the script and scotch-taped the cue-lines to the back of my guitar.
The performance was exhilarating. It’s always amazing to do the show–playing my tunes to a Broadway house–but actually appearing in a couple plays–awesome. The extent of my Broadway acting d

Before the 24

Tomorrow’s the 24 Hour Plays. It’s the celebrity version. As I have since 2001, I’m playing songs between the plays.
There’s always a meeting the night before, at 10 pm (the 24 hours runs from the meeting at 10 pm, the writers write ’til 6 am, each coming up with a ten minute one-act, the directors show up at 7 am and read the plays, the actors show up at 8:30; they rehearse all day, the show begins at 8 and is done by 10 pm)
So we all met at the American Airlines theater, a very swank Broadway house. There I was in a room full of celebrities.

A bunch of the actors have done the 24 in previous years; it’s great to say hi to, and be recognized by Rachel Dratch (I’m a huge fan), Rosie Perez, Billy Crudup. Although Billy Crudup actually went to school with my friend Matt Saldivar, and was apparently at a party at our apartment on Second Avenue in 1992. I should’ve been starstruck in advance; I’m such a fan of his performances in Jesus’ Son and Almost Famous. (At any rate, a guy got drunk at that party, and crawled out our window and tried to party on the ledge. It was a bad environment in which to be a showbiz Nostradamus.)
(Actually, a few months ago, I was walking down the Bowery and a Land Rover pulled up to me. “Hey! Hey!” I squinted to see who was driving. “It’s Rosie!” And so it was. Rosie Perez gave me a lift home. AWESOME.)
Matthew Lillard is doing them this year; I love the guy for his performance in SLC Punk!, the greatest punk rock story ever told. Very poignant for those of us who grew up in, or in the margins of, the 80’s hardcore scene.
Also Marisa Tomei, Christina Ricci, Anna Paquin, Lili Taylor, Adam Goldberg, more…a bunch of famous people, basically.
Everybody brings a prop to potentially be used. I brought my zhong ruan–a Chinese tenor lute that I bought in Shanghai a couple years ago. I played a few chords and the celebrities cooed impressedly.
So I’ll report in full when I return from the show tomorrow.