Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Brian May @ Free Library of Philadelphia

Tom & Amy's Philadelphia Adventure

My girlfriend Amy is a Queen fanatic, so when she heard that Queen guitarist-astrophysicist-animal rights activist-author-stereoscopic photography expert Brian May (aka Dr. Bri) was presenting a free lecture and slide show at the Free Library of Philadelphia's downtown headquarters in support of the book he co-authored with photographic historian Elena Vidal, A Village Lost and Found (Frances Lincoln), we had to go.

A Village Lost and Found

Backstory: A Village Lost and Found, which is the result of 30 years of research, collects the stereoscopic picture cards (the earliest forerunners of the View-Master and 3-D images) depicting life in the 1850s in a small English village by stereoscopic photog T. R. Williams, who originally published them in his Scenes in Our Village; the Oxfordshire village itself - Hinton Waldrist - was "lost" for almost 150 years until May rediscovered its existence in 2003.

Stereoscope card of villager John Sims at his pig sty

Admittedly, I was initially Mr. Grumpy, as driving two hours to Philly for a program scheduled smack dab in the thick of rush hour to see the (admittedly great) guitarist of a band I wasn't "all that into" to begin with wasn't my idea of fun; but I acquiesced.

Tom Warner's alter ego, Mr. G

"Besides," Amy commented. "I don't think many people will be there - only four people RSVP'ed on the library's Facebook page."

"I don't think many people will be there," Amy said, without irony.

Yeah, right. I had to explain to Amy that nobody visits library Facebook pages - except librarians. (Sorry, we're just not that cool - or social-media trendy, however you want look at it!) Amy's crowd estimate gauge was as off-kilter as her sense of direction, which borders on vertigo. In fact, people started lining up outside the library's 400-seating capacity auditorium a good 3 1/2 hours before the talk and by showtime, the line seemed to stretch to Wilmington, DE. (Four people, you say! How about over 400?)

Yet, far from experiencing all the horrors I had been led to believe by my big brother Billy (who lives in Bucks County but makes his hellish daily commute through The City of Brotherly Love), the Philadelphia Experiment was a smashing success. Everywhere we went and everyone we met was really nice. It was like being in an East Coast San Francisco. In Philly!

Despite living just two hours away, neither Amy nor I was really familiar with our sister I-95 city to the north (Amy had been to the Mutter Museum years ago, but I hadn't been in the city proper since I saw Steve Carlton pitch for the Phillies back in 1972!), so we parked at the lot close to the library - which we knew was nearby because of this license plate we spotted:

Someone in Philly REALLY likes Brian May!

The good vibe started right at the Free Library of Philadelphia where I had an unusual experience - a pleasant one!

Tom & Amy say "We're Phillie Library Phanatics!"

Yes! Everyone was nice, laid back, and helpful, from the guards to the patrons. It was quiet. It was clean. It was non-confrontational. The Wi-Fi cafe had a real barista serving up Starbucks coffee, food, and they even had t-shirts for sale - including one for the homeless ("We are all homeless until all have a home.") I actually only saw three or four homeless people (in the bathroom, natch), and even they were cool - quiet and non-confrontational (no one asked for money, no one yelled, no one acted crazy and in your face). It was so unlike my Baltimore public library experiences in which everyone seems to be on edge and so freakin' aggro, 24/7.

It started with the friendly security guard. We asked him directions and when he heard we were Baltimorons, instantly piped up, "Hey, Edgar Allan Poe may be buried in your town, but if you're into Poe you have to check out Poe's favorite raven, Grip, in our Rare Books Department!" Grip was Charles Dickens' pet raven (he even appeared in the author's story "Barnaby Rudge" - which was reviewed by a literary critic by the name of Edgar Allan Poe) who died in 1841 and was taxidermied, mounted, and given to the Philly Library.

Grip the Raven

Alas, we never got to see the bird that inspired Poe's "The Raven," as the department had closed for the day, but we were directed to the Prints & Pictures Department, where there was a stereoscope cards and viewers exhibit to tie-in with Brian May and Elena Vidal's author talk. There I didn't notice a hottie French girl (honest, Amy!) who couldn't figure out how to use the stereoscopic viewer and another couple (cruise line entertainers, as it turned out) who were really into stereoscope cards - and soccer! I couldn't believe it, but they were fans - like me - of the old French national team, that is, Les Bleus from the Zinedine Zidane, pre-2010 World Cup era. (The cute French girl wasn't, as she was still trying to figure out how to use viewer, so we bid her adieu!) We agreed the current French squad was a national disgrace, that (now former) coach Raymond Domenanche was an idiot, and that Zidane himself was still Godhead, even in light of his infamous head-butt in the 2006 World Cup Final.

The couple were headed down to wait in line for the evening's lecture, but we couldn't envision standing in line a good 2-3 hours before the program. I desperately needed coffee, so we set out to find a Starbucks and kill some time walking around the neighborhood. I scored my coffee up the street on Callowhill (always hot - the way gumshoe Philip Marlowe drank it!), and we then cooled off at the Whole Foods across the corner, where we were fascinated by hearing a Soul Sister having a violently flirtatious cellphone conversation with her man: "I swear I was ready to grab my hot iron and iron your face...I was ready to grab my Ginsu knife and carve you up and slice and dice your balls." Hmmmm, the City of Brotherly Love was obviously not the City of Sisterly Love!

On our way back, we stopped by a bookstore around the corner from the library called, appropriately enough, Book Corner. This discount store on North 20th Street is full of books donated by Friends of the Free Library, with all proceeds going to the Philly Library. I was expecting old dog-eared, discarded library books, but was pleasantly surprised to discover a store not unlike Baltimore's Normal Books & Music (minus the music) and full of clean, crisp, unremaindered books in very good condition. And really cheap! It's a big store with an impressive array of eclectic titles. Amy picked up Volume 4 of Francis James Child's famous fin-de-siecle The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. "I always see these referenced in my medieval and folk records," Renaissance Woman/Medieval Babe Amy said.

While Amy was busy checking out the Literature section, I scoured the Music section (passing on a Spanish language Pet Shop Boys bio) and TV and Film shelves. On the latter, I discovered an entire set of the wonderful British film journal, Projections: A Forum for Film Makers. Edited by John Boorman, with the occasional guest editor like Mike Figgis or Martin Scorcese, these hard-to-find (usually out-of-print) book-length journals provide a forum for "practitioners of the cinema" (as they put it in veddy English-speak) to write about their work. They're info-packed and always fascinating and I hadn't seen any in years, since back when the Bibelot bookstore chain went belly-up (and off-shore with their capital). I hesitated about buying 'em all until Book Corner manager Jonathan Sipes wandered by and mentioned that all paperbacks were now just $2 a pop. "Say no more!" I cried, and greedily grabbed all of them.

I bought all the film books at Book Corner!

I also picked up a beautifully unblemished copy of Michael J. Weldon's out-of-print Psychotronic Video Guide (1996 edition) for $2 bucks and, for good measure, Local Hero: The Making of the Film (an out-of-print book about one of my favorite movies by Scots auteur Bill Forsythe). On the way out, I spotted Songs in the Key of Z, a great book about "outsider musicians" by WFMU radio personality Irwin Chusid (who I met years ago at Henninger's Tavern, after his appearance at Baltimore's American Museum of Visionary Art) and told Amy it was an essential addition to her oddball musician library, if only for the chapters devoted to The Shaggs and Daniel Johnston.

Irwin Chusid's off-key Z

At the cash register, the cashier girl was wearing a Queen t-shirt. With my flair for the obvious (it's a gift, I suppose), I asked her, "Are you going to see Brian May tonight next door?"

"Oh yeah," the cashier replied. "I'm heading over to score a good seat the minute I finish ringing you guys up." (We saw her later and, yes, she did score a good seat!)

While Amy made her purchases, I chatted with store manager Jonathan Sipes and told him we were from Baltimore. Sipes immediately replied, "Baltimore, huh?...I've been there and my favorite things about Baltimore are the Kinetic Sculpture Race and the American Visionary Arts Museum." Agreed! What can I his store, the man has good taste!

We headed back to the library a little after 6 o'clock, where the line (a mere 6 people when we arrived at 4 o'clock that afternoon) extended a good 1/4-mile around the corner from the basement auditorium. It seemed everyone was wearing a Queen t-shirt or hugging their slipcase-bound copies of A Village Lost and Found.

"Oh dear," I sighed to Amy. "Well, at least we're in a library and have ample resource to reading materials while we wait!"

But the waiting, far from being the "hardest part" as Mr. Tom Petty one phrased it, wasn't bad at all. Mainly because everyone was so nice and friendly. No one pushed and shoved or played "holdsie" for their place in line. In fact, folks politely let other people get in front of them. And we were particularly lucky to be standing next to a charmingly laid-back young Brazilian musician, Andrei SoulsilenS of the Philly-based grunge-inspired band SoulsilenS (, also on Myspace and Facebook), who didn't have the book but was there just to talk to his guitar hero Brian May and shake his hand.

Our new Sao Paolo pal Andrei

After I'm sure I bored him to tears talking about Brazilian soccer (I am so predictable with my flair-for-the-obvious), we got to talking music and travel. Trying to explain what Baltimore was like, I said, "Well, it's a great place to score heroin or get murdered, or get a sexually transmitted disease." He had never heard of John Waters, or Homicide, or The Wire, or about how Al Capone got treated at Union Memorial for his STD and donated the Syphillis Tree as thanks. He then descrined his hometown Sao Paolo, which sounded a lot more interesting (go figure!). Sao Paolo has sun and thongs; Baltimore only has The Sun and Sisqo's "The Thong Song".

At 7 o'clock, the libray staff opened the doors to the 400-seating-capacity auditorium and let the crowd in, handing out free pairs of 3-D glasses for the slide show that were ours to keep as mementos. Brian later explained that the 3-D slide show used the same 3-D glasses and silver screen projection technology as AVATAR (and for free!)

"Do these spex make me look DEVO?" Amy asks

During the wait, the PA system played classical versions of classic Queen songs, which I am certain was from The String Quartet's Tribute to Queen album (an inspired choice and great fun!). Initially, there was a notice saying photos would not be allowed, but the staff said that, in light of both the crowd's size and enthusiasm, Brian May had agreed to let his photographically inclined fans snap merrily away before the lecture started.

At 7:30 on the dot Brian and Elena entered, and snap away we did!

Brian and Elena got a standing ovation

The affable Dr. Bri and Elena Vidal

When Brian May and Elena Vidal entered the auditorium, I whipped out my Flip Video and started recording. I woulda recorded more, but some ruffian-lout behind me smacked my head with his program and said, "Stop that!" ( suppose I was obscuring his view - sorry!)

Watch my crappy Flip Video of Dr. Bri & Elena's intro at the Philly Library.

(And please pardon the crap hand-held video - I was trying to snap pictures with one hand and record this with the other - the one time in my life I wished I was an 8-legged Octopus!)

Brian went on to introduce his co-host Elena as being from Spain but adding that she was actually from Basque, pointing out "...and there is a difference!" Though I'm an entrenched fan of Catalonia's firecely independent FC Barcelona soccer team, I also like their fiercely independent-minded Basque neighbors, whose soccer team Athletic Club Bilboa I like to call AC Bilboa Baggins.

Basque soccer team AC Bilboa Baggins

Brian explained that lot of the color reproductions in the book were made possible or enhanced thanks to the "miracle of PhotoShop." Needless to say, Bri's a big fan of the software and must have mentioned it a half-dozen times, at one point saying he sounded like an unofficial spokesperson for the product. (Does it surprise anyone that the scientifically inclined Dr. May would love techno-photo software - and be a master of it?)

As I said, I had to switch off my video (under duress) while Brian and Elena explained their book, the technology of stereoscopy, and the village they rediscovered, but thankfully Brian's posted an informative two-part explanation of eveything on the official Queen web site.

Watch Brian May & Elena Vidal, Part 1.

Watch Brian May & Elena Vidal, Part 2.

The talk was very informative and enjoyable, with the only drawback being the overweight oddball sitting across the aisle from Amy; he looked like Comic Store Guy from The Simpsons as made these awkward gasping sounds throughout the presentation like he had swallowed a Whoopee Cushion - and every time Amy looked over his way he muttered something utterly incomprehensible. (What do we know? He's probably one of the undiscovered "visionary outsider" geniuses documented in Irwin Chusid's book!) At least we weren't sitting next to him (a plight that I'm sure is as horrid as sitting next to Underdog Lady on a bus trip.)

Brian enjoyed the crowd's enthusiasm so much that he and Elena extended the length of their planned talk and showed additional slides and an extended Q&A aftewards. I liked the audience member who prefaced his question by thanking Elena - in Espanol! (Though it may have been Basque - what do I know?)

Time to slide away...

At about 9 p.m. the talk ended and everyone headed upstairs to wait in line for the author book-signing. Another huge line, but again, it was a pleasant wait as Queen/May/stereoscopy fans talked amongst themselves and traded Queen anecdotes. The father and son from northwest New Jersey in front of us were very impressed that Amy had seen Queen at the height of their glory in 1977. "I only saw the Paul Rodgers tour," he said, "But I loved it." To speed up the book-signing process, helpful staff and volunteers wrote the names of each fan on sticky notes, which they then affixed to copies of the book.

Amy got nervous as the line shortened and we got closer to Brian May. "I don't know what to say," she said, anxiously. And then the moment arrived. I had earlier commented on what a great voice Brian had and how this Renaissance Man could have yet another career as an audiobook narrator. So...

"My boyfriend thinks you'd make a great audiobook narrator," she told Brian. He laughed and said "Who's your boyfriend? I'd like to meet him."

Thus prompted, he shook my hand (Brian May shook my hand!), but I told him, "To be honest, we drove up from Baltimore because Amy wanted to meet you, but I wanted to meet Elena - she's so beautiful and has that sexy Basque accent!"

I know...I'm a pig, but at least Elena smiled and then proceeded to sign Amy's book - lefthanded! "Wow," I said, "you, Amy, and Barack Obama - the great leftists of the world!"

Amy asks astrophysicist Brian May if he could
demonstrate the Big Bang - perhaps back at
his hotel room after the show

"Sounds charming!" Brian May humors Amy
as she describes the beauty of her twee
village green, Dundalk, MD

"Just write 'To Amy, Love Brian' - and your hotel room!"
Amy instructs Dr. May

Tom instructs lefty Elena to sign "To my
idol Tom - who I've waited my entire life to meet."

Amy was so excited at meeting Brian May she
suffered a mini-stroke and wandered the halls
aimlessly until an autistic boy (r) led her back

to the library lobby

The book-signing took an hour, but seemed to go quicker - and I must say, just like Crispin Glover when he gave a presentation at Baltimore's Charles Theater earlier this year (and stayed until 2 a.m. in the morning!), Brian was a gracious host who made sure everyone who came to see him got to see him and get their books signed. A man of the people! Just like T. R. Williams and his beloved Hinton Waldrist villagers.

Though we didn't get back to Baltimore until Midnight, Amy was now beaming like Little Miss Sunshine. And (a sure sign that she was still on Cloud 9), she wasn't even hungry, though she hadn't eaten anything in over eight hours.


Final Thoughts (a la Jerry Springer):

What a charming man Brian May is! My friend Big Dave Cawley may be the self-titled "King of Men," but Brian May is the Queen of Men, and that's going one better in my opnion (sorry Dave!). And what a charming - and sexy - woman Elena is (love that Basque accent)! She reminded me of a Basque Claudine Longet. So there you have it, a good time had by all. Oh, even our eloquent host-lecturer, Brian May, picked up on the good vibrations in the Liberty Bell town and showed he's now a Phillie Phanatic as well:
We had a fantastic night in Philadelphia last night ... the kind of night you can only have in the USA. It was a packed auditorium - in the beautiful Free Library of Philadephia - 400 gentle folk who gave us a standing ovation when we walked in ... and responded warmly to every nuance of our presentation. There was also an overflow room for extra people to enjoy some of the experience - though sadly they could not see the show in 3-D. It was one of the most enjoyable nights I can remember ... the warmth of the contact, the laughter, the applause, the vibe, reminded me of early Queen days ... as if we shared something rare and special in that room.

We also sold all the books that Francis Lincoln, our publishers had put in there! So big thanks to everyone there ... Philly rocks!

- Brian May, Wed 21 2010 (from his site

Related Links:
"A Village Preserved" (New York Times review)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Tom, very curious, what was Brian's handshake like? Typical, firm, dead fish, girly or masculine?

If you could indulge us :) Thanks!

5:45 PM  
Anonymous Andrei SoulsilenS said...

Tom, thanks for all the love and support!
You rock!
Andrei SoulsilenS

6:49 PM  
Blogger DumbledoresAmy said...

I was the cashier girl! My name is Amy too! I'm glad that you liked the Brian May talk and the store!

P.S. The man who helped you was actually Dick, and not the manager. You would get along with Jonathan also though. :-)

11:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brian May is this weekend's guest on PRI's "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!" On Sunday 10/29, it airs at 2:00 pm EDT on WYPR 88.1 FM.

1:05 PM  
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11:39 PM  

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