Mount Sutro: An Electronic Periodical

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The Devil Came Back to Get You

by Archived Article (2001–2014) Help
Photo Credit: David July — Golden rat tail cactus (Cleistocactus winteri) in the world deserts environment within the Conservatory at the United States Botanic Garden (1867), Washington, District of Columbia: 29 January 2014

Golden rat tail cactus (Cleistocactus winteri) in the world deserts environment within the Conservatory at the United States Botanic Garden (1867).

100 Maryland Avenue SW, Washington, District of Columbia: 29 January 2014


part of the United States Botanic Garden album

Of all the diverse botanical species on exhibit at the United States Botanic Garden Conservatory, I found these Cleistocactus winteri native to Bolivia to be one of the most unusual and visually interesting.

A member of the Cactaceae (cactus) family, Cleistocactus winteri is classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Photo Credit: David July — Golden rat tail cactus (Cleistocactus winteri) in the world deserts environment within the Conservatory at the United States Botanic Garden (1867), Washington, District of Columbia: 29 January 2014

Cleistocactus winteri is only known to exist in two locations — a combined area of 96.53 square miles — within the Province of Florida. They occur on forest cliffs in seasonally dry inter-Andean valleys at elevations around 4,400 feet.

The northern subspecies is only found on a single cliff, while the southern subspecies occurs over a six mile or so stretch of cliffs. The latter is also subject to frequent collection by locals who in turn use them as ornamental plants.

Photo Credit: David July — Golden rat tail cactus (Cleistocactus winteri) in the world deserts environment within the Conservatory at the United States Botanic Garden (1867), Washington, District of Columbia: 29 January 2014

There is no shortage of interesting and free things to do in the District, but I definitely recommend visiting the United States Botanic Garden. Open daily from 1000 to 1700, the various themed areas like the world deserts environment can provide a nice change of pace… especially during a wintertime trip.

Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July

The Seat of the Empire

by Archived Article (2001–2014) Help
Photo Credit: David July — The majestic art deco Chrysler Building (1930) and nondescript Trump World Tower (2001) with the Queensboro Bridge (1909) and Ravenswood Generating Station (1963) beyond from the 86F observation deck of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 24 January 2014

The majestic art deco Chrysler Building (1930) and nondescript Trump World Tower (2001) with the Queensboro Bridge (1909) and Ravenswood Generating Station (1963) beyond from the 86F observation deck of the Empire State Building (1931).

350 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York: 24 January 2014


part of the Empire State Building album

I have been to the 86F observation deck of the Empire State Building (1931) at least twice before, but never with a camera nor late at night. Since they stay open until 0200 regardless of the weather, I decided that I would go after 2300 on my first day in town to avoid any crowds.

Photo Credit: David July — Restored wall mural and signage behind the reception desk in the lobby of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 23 January 2014

It was fifteen degrees when I arrived at the lobby around 2330 on Thursday, 23 January 2014; crowds were not going to be a problem. The lobby was thoroughly renovated to recapture design features lost in the 1960s, return the illumination to original levels, restore the marble walls and completely replicate the art deco ceiling mural first installed in 1931.

Photo Credit: David July — Restored marble walls and ceiling mural in the lobby of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 23 January 2014

As expected, I did not have to wait for one second during my visit. I purchased a ticket ($27), passed through the airport-style security checkpoint and rode a lift from 2F to 80F. The new visitors center exhibit on 80F opened in 2011, the building's 80th anniversary year.

Photo Credit: David July — A silhouette of the building set in a marble wall in the 80F visitors center of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 23 January 2014

Information panels provide historical records, statistics and photographs focusing on three main themes: speed, scale and steel. Although modern, the design of the floor and exhibits matches the overall style of the building.

Photo Credit: David July — Information panel with building materials lists, prices, cost analyses and photographs in the 80F visitors center of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 23 January 2014

Visitors normally have plenty of time to read all of the information, but I spent only a few minutes since there was no wait, I had been up for over seventeen hours and was keen to get to the observatory. Proceeding to the bank of elevators, I rode from 80F up to the main observatory deck on 86F.

Photo Credit: David July — LCD display and floor readout (84) inside the lift ascending from 80F to 86F in the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 23 January 2014

A sign and backlit photograph welcomes arrivals to 86F, which includes the famous open air 360 degree terrace and an indoor viewing gallery with radiator-lined windows. I immediately went outside and discovered what fifteen degrees feels like with 15–20 mile per hour winds at 1,050 feet.

Photo Credit: David July — A sign and backlit photograph welcomes visitors to the 86F observation deck of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 23 January 2014

Yes, it was damn cold but very much worth it. The weather did make for a fairly picturesque evening, the glow and shimmer of skyscrapers and street lamps providing most of the illumination. Despite all of the light, the city felt unusually still and rooftop bars within view were doing no or very little business.

Photo Credit: David July — Looking north at midtown including the New York Public Library main branch (1897–1911) from the 86F observation deck of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 23 January 2014

For the next two hours I repeatedly circled the observation deck taking photographs, stepping inside a few times to warm up over the radiators along the windows. Views to the south include the Flatiron Building (1902), New York Life Building (1928), Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower (1909) and the nearly complete One World Trade Center (2014).

Photo Credit: David July — Southern view including the Flatiron Building (1902), New York Life Building (1928), Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower (1909) and One World Trade Center (2014) from the 86F observation deck of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 24 January 2014

To the east is the United Nations Headquarters (1952) building, directly across the East River from the neon Pepsi-Cola sign (1938) at Gantry Plaza State Park. The sign was refurbished in 1994 and subsequently moved after the nearby Pepsi bottling plant it adorned closed in 1999. It was installed at its current waterfront location in the park in 2008.

Photo Credit: David July — Eastern view including the United Nations Headquarters (1952) and the neon Pepsi-Cola sign (1938) at Gantry Plaza State Park in Queens from the 86F observation deck of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 24 January 2014

Toward the tourist trap known as Times Square, more modern skyscrapers like 1095 Avenue of the Americas (1974), the Condé Nast Building (1999) and One Astor Plaza (1972) stand alongside older structures that fortunately remain.

Photo Credit: David July — Northern view including 1095 Avenue of the Americas (1974), the Condé Nast Building (1999) and One Astor Plaza (1972) in Times Square from the 86F observation deck of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 24 January 2014

Although the wind and cold made it difficult, I tried to use the terrace ledge and various poses to steady my camera. Keeping still while shooting at 250 mm was a particular challenge, especially with the light conditions. Many turned out blurry but others are salvageable, like this closeup of the Flatiron Building and the snowy intersection in front of it.

Photo Credit: David July — Southern closeup of the Flatiron Building (1902), snow on the ground and the intersection of 23rd Street, 5th Avenue and Broadway from the 86F observation deck of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 24 January 2014

A notable feature of the Empire State Building is its 158 foot mooring mast — originally designed as a docking port for transatlantic airships — and the 204 foot antenna spire atop. 102F houses an indoor public observation deck that costs $17 more to visit and the now off limits 103F has a docking port, outdoor terrace and hatch to the antenna. The first transmissions from ESB occurred before New Year's 1932.

Photo Credit: David July — Broadcast antennas, the 158 foot mooring mast, the 102F and 103F observation/docking capsule and the 204 foot antenna spire from the 86F observation deck of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 24 January 2014

Bearing FCC Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) 1007048, the antenna spire has an overall height of 1,504.3 feet above mean sea level. After the destruction of 1 World Trade Center in 2001, a majority of commercial television and FM radio stations moved to the Empire State Building. Several antenna arrays are mounted to the mooring mast below 102F, while transmitter rooms are located on 79F, 81F, 82F and 83F.

Photo Credit: David July — Broadcast antennas mounted to the 158 foot mooring mast from the 86F observation deck of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 24 January 2014

All external lighting hardware was upgraded in November 2012, replaced with a new dynamic LED system designed by Philips Color Kinetics. The mooring mast's chrome-nickel steel and backlit faceted glass is illuminated by this system and can appear in a variety of colors.

Photo Credit: David July — Closeup of the 158 foot mooring mast's chrome-nickel steel and backlit faceted glass from the 86F observation deck of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 24 January 2014

The temperature would drop to fourteen before I decided at 0130 that it was time to retreat to the warmth of my room at Hotel 31, located about five blocks away at 120 East 31st Street at Lexington.

Photo Credit: David July — The majestic art deco Chrysler Building (1930) with the Queensboro Bridge (1909) and Ravenswood Generating Station (1963) beyond from the 86F observation deck of the Empire State Building (1931), New York, New York: 24 January 2014

The images developed thus far only represent a small percentage of the 266 total shots taken, so others will likely be added to the Empire State Building album in the future.

Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July

The Songs Written for You

by Archived Article (2001–2014) Help
Photo Credit: David July — Blow Up Hollywood featuring Steve Messina with Harvey Jones and Thad Debrock during the sound check on Stage 3 at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City before the premiere show in the 'Blue Sky Blond' album tour, New York, New York: 25 January 2014

Blow Up Hollywood featuring Steve Messina with Harvey Jones and Thad Debrock during the sound check on Stage 3 at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City before the premiere show in the "Blue Sky Blond" album tour.

185 Orchard Street, New York, New York: 25 January 2014


part of the Blow Up Hollywood 2014-01-25 album

Last year while Blow Up Hollywood was raising money to help promote and tour their new Blue Sky Blond album, band leader Steve Messina posted an essay regarding one of the new songs.

"The story behind the song 'marjorie'…" is a touching and true account about how music can impact us. I had shared it on Twitter at the time, but wish to reproduce it here.

The song "Marjorie" is lovely enough, striking an even deeper chord after one learns the context behind it. You can listen to a clip of the song on the Blue Sky Blond album page and then read Steve's essay below.

Photo Credit: David July — The intimate seating area of Stage 3 at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City during the sound check for the premiere show in Blow Up Hollywood's 'Blue Sky Blond' album tour, New York, New York: 25 January 2014

The story behind the song 'marjorie'…
by Steve Messina
Tuesday, 21 May 2013

In 2002, when we first released our self-titled debut CD, there weren't many ways to purchase music from independent artists. Amazon was still new, and had yet to accept independent music. Websites like iTunes and CD Baby didn't exist. One of the only avenues, outside of purchasing music at live shows, was to mail order it directly from us using a check or money order.

That first year, we received a few orders per week. Being the small operation that we were, I would personally fill them myself. On occasion, the customer might write a little note with a special request or just some short nicety, but generally, there was just a check with the request for our only CD.

In the beginning, I enjoyed opening the mail and finding our fan base slowly growing. It was interesting to see where each order came from. Which parts of the state, country and world the music was reaching. But there was one order I received that really stood out among the rest.

It was the only envelope I can remember receiving with actual cash in it; a mixture of some old crinkly dollar bills and at least one dollar in assorted change. It contained a long four-page letter written in pencil with very poor penmanship, making it difficult to understand. After reading it numerous times, I was finally able to decipher the writing.

The letter was addressed from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, from a woman named Marjorie Van Buren. She explained that she discovered the music one late night, while listening to a local college radio station, and was particularly moved by what she heard. Having fallen ill over the last year, she took great interest in the concept expressed in the lyrics about a soul searching for heaven in the after-life. She also found great comfort specifically in the song "Coming Home."

Marjorie went on to tell me other tidbits about her life and from what I could gather it was one filled with strife and struggle, but with a positive outlook for the future. I was moved by her story and the fact that someone with so little money would be willing to part with it for our music. So I wrote a short letter back thanking her for her kind words and support, encouragement for a speedy recovery, and sent off the CD.

In 2004, our second CD, Fake, was released and by this time there were far more places to purchase it online. The mail orders still came in, but now the majority of people were buying the music online. Again, an envelope addressed from Oklahoma and Marjorie arrived. She told me about hearing the new CD in the feature that was done on NPR and John Diliberto's show entitled Echoes.

She was again very generous about her enjoyment of our music and updated me on her deteriorating health. I replied with a letter of hope and optimism and sent off the CD with a few special items. One was a book I love and often turn to for my own spiritual empowerment, The Mysticism of Sound and Music by Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi philosopher and musical virtuoso who lived in the early twentieth century.

More time passed and we released Stars End and then The Diaries of Private Henry Hill. And again more letters from Marjorie, but this time there was good news, as her condition had seemed to stabilize, if not improve.

After 2006 and the release of The Diaries CD we did not release any music for quite a while. It was a very quiet time for the group, as other things were taking precedence in my life. In the fall of 2010 we released Take Flight and then in the spring of 2011 the Collections CD, but there was no word from Marjorie.

Of course, there was a part of me that wondered if she soured on the music. All of our releases have a wide variety of styles and sonic qualities to them and I can certainly understand that not everything we do will resonate with everyone all the time.

I've often received e-mails and letters from dedicated and supportive customers who have explained that a certain release wasn't their cup of tea, and I always appreciated the discourse and honesty. Maybe we lost her in all the musical changes and all the time that had passed between records.

Then in the June of 2011 I opened my mailbox and noticed a letter addressed from Oklahoma, from a woman by the name of Hazel Van Buren. I immediately recognized the name and wondered if this could be just a coincidence. When I opened the envelope, there was no check or money order inside — nothing but a typed letter on paper with a professional letterhead.

The letter was simple and short, from Hazel, Marjorie's sister. It began…

To Whom This May Concern;

I wish I were writing this letter under better circumstances. My sister Marjorie Van Buren was quite the admirer of your music. Whenever she had the opportunity she would play certain pieces for me, her other family members, and friends with great enthusiasm.

I think you might be aware of her fragile health, as she explained to me that you occasionally exchanged letters. I regret to inform you that she passed away on May 22nd of this year. I was by her side in her final moments and she requested that we play your song "Coming Home" at her funeral. It was an uplifting addition to a very difficult ceremony. I listen to that now quite often and think of her.

I just wanted to thank you for bringing a little light into a dark time for her. It meant a great deal. She's in a better place now and she will live on in spirit.

Warmest regards,

Hazel

After reading the letter I was overcome with great sadness. I was stunned and mournful that this young woman had passed away far too early. Then as the moments passed, I became quite moved that the music meant so much to her and that her sister took the time, in the middle of her grieving, to inform us. A few days later I sent a card and a short message with my condolences.

For the first few weeks after receiving the letter from Hazel, I thought about Marjorie quite often. It was strange considering I really did not know her very well, just a few short letters over a period of years, and in none of those letters did she reveal anything super personal, outside of her illness. But knowing her situation and how much the music meant to her made me feel that we were quite close and perhaps somehow spiritually connected.

More time had passed and my thoughts turned to work on our new record, Blue Sky Blond. We had our first session with the band in February and had recorded a dozen songs with multiple versions over the course of two days. Then, as is our habit, we took a little time to assess the results and go from there. We had done a little more work on the music over the coming months, and I knew I needed to do more writing for it to be complete.

Sometime in early September, my wife Kim and I were planning to go out to lunch on a beautiful mid-afternoon day. The sun was shining, and a crisp blue summers' sky filled the air. As she was getting dressed and ready to go, I decided to pick up the guitar and strum a few chords while I waited. It was a very common chord sequence with a folk feel to it. Without thinking I began humming this little sweet and simple melody to go along with it.

There was something to it that just felt right. It was so easy and natural. As Kim finished getting dressed, I began to play the chords and hum the melody for her. I couldn't possibly leave now. I needed to put lyrics to this immediately. So we decided she would bring lunch back instead. In the 20 or 30 minutes she was gone the lyrics just poured out of me. And by the time she returned it was complete. No struggles. No need for rewrites.

It was a tribute to Marjorie, a woman who truly touched me and made me feel like the music was special to her. A song for someone I had never met, but felt very connected to. Someone who gave me the greatest gift a songwriter can ever receive, the knowledge that the music truly matters and can make even the slightest difference.

Photo Credit: David July — The first part of the lyrics to 'Marjorie' handwritten by Steve Messina

Above: the first part of the lyrics to "Marjorie" handwritten by Steve Messina

Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July
Photo Credit: David July