Ken Gutberlet

1/14/2003 - Greetings from Top of the World

"Top of the World"- that's the St. Moritz slogan. I don't think it's specifically altitude related- St Mz = 1800m above sea level (let's see . . . 2.54cm/inch . . . 12 inches in a foot . . . uhh . . . math). Maybe the cost of watches has something to do with it- CHF14,000 (that's Swiss Francs which trade at CHF1.38/$US at this typing) for a pink-banded diamond-over-touched face time piece whose elegance is lost on me. Maybe it's the top kissing spot per capita- the local greeting one-ups the traditional double phantom cheek kiss- this one goes phantom kiss one cheek, phantom kiss other cheek, phantom kiss for original cheek. I'm not sure if it's a left-right-left thing, a r-l-r, or random. Maybe it's the "name" of the place where stories of folks with deep pockets originate. I've yet to encounter much of that as my social destinations include: the Acla restaurant, where musicians hover around the bar to feed (and are 2nd priorities); the dungeon-esque Stübli Bar; and the anonymity of the ski slopes. So, probably like "Charm City" or "The City that Reads", it's just a slogan. I've heard no one refer to St Mz as "Top of the World"- just literature.

I arrived in Zurich with all my parcels (thanks Swiss Air!), slid thru immigration although I never received my official work visa, and hopped a train for St Mz- actually, 3 trains, one at a time- heading for Switzerland's southeast corner, close to Italy. Thru semi-consciousness, we chugged from the rainy low lands south towards the hills where the snow first showed on the Alpine peaks and by the time we were in the Engadin Valley (the predominantly east-west valley where St Mz is located) the snow was deep all around. Folks with sleds hopped on and off the train heading for toboggan runs. They were getting me psyched for some skiing! The top halves of mountains snowily glistened above the tree line while pines covered the lower elevations. I hopped off in St Mz- I guess we oughta orient the town. The train arrived from the east to the lake-level station. To the northwest (a 10 min walk uphill) perches St Mz Dorf (grinnily remembering a Tim Conway character, I used my fluent Berlitz Deutsche to discern that "Dorf" means "village"). This is where the action is- lots of swank hotels, high $ boutiques, chi-chi restaurants, all the names (don't ask me to name them, I'm just thinking that they must be THE names). Above Dorf (elevation and latitude-wise) is the ski area. Below is the frozen lake (on which they just started constructing a horse racing track) and farther south another snowy peak encloses the valley. To the southwest, at the western edge of the lake, a 15 min walk down the hill, lies St Mz Bad. Bad because it's the low-rent district where musicians live? No . . . again . . . using my fluent Berlitz Deutsche, I realized that "Bad" means "bath". I've yet to encounter one there, but I guess it was named for something. So, that's the town. Every couple km thru the Engadin Valley (which actually has a southern offshoot) another town nestles 'tween the snowy slopes.

Upon arrival, I called the Hotel Schweizerhof ( - I haven't checked the site due to frugality), and a van was down to pick me up within minutes. High class treatment. The road back up the hill towards St Mz Dorf was mostly a parking lot. Holidayers packed the village during this busiest time of the year- the last week of Dec thru the first week of Jan. Although the 10 min walk would've been faster, I didn't mind the luxury of unburdenedness. Plus, I had no clue where I was going. Just after I arrived at the hotel, Bryan and Julie Huddy walked in. I met this cool troubadoring couple two years ago in Copenhagen. From Hawaii, they've been non-stop gigging thru Europe for the last three years. How fortuitous to encounter them in my first few moments in St Mz! They've visited here numerous times and were psyched to help me get introduced to the scene. Cool with me! First on the agenda was lunch- sounded like a plan.
The deal with feedings is this: Acla Restaurant in Hotel Schw offers to musicians: lunch (which I've only visited thrice- it's early!)= show up between 13:00 and 14:00 (these Swiss do things in military-type time)- three courses- two or three options per; and dinner (which I only skipped the first nite as I took a long nap)= show up around 20:00- five courses- two choices per- gourmet starter, soup or juice, salad bar, gourmet entrees (one "carne" and one fish), and gourmet dessert; plus, large doses of bread and a glass of wine. "Gourmet" means darned delicious but somewhat sparse (for dessert it also means not much chocolate . . . although . . . one night I broke down and asked for some chocolate cake that wasn't on out menu), however, the number of courses makes up for gourmetness. Also, no need to gluttonize so close to gig time. I'm certainly not emaciated or anything (I've supplemented my diet with Toblerone and cheese- mmm hmm!). One of my favorite meals (due to ingredients) was the Mid-Atlantic harvest special- deer appetizer, pumpkin soup, duck entree, chestnut dessert. Can't say I've eaten anything like that back home, but the flora and fauna match up. A Loch Raven special included quail and perch. And whatinthehey are calf sweetbreads? Wasn't a doughy munch at all. Depending on the hecticness of the restaurant, sometimes dinner takes an hour and sometimes I have to leave without dessert (boo hoo) as gig time approaches two hours after arriving. I've tried a few of the fruity "desserts" and have since mostly passed on the idea- most of them come with ice cream and that's the last thing I should ingest half an hour pre-gig. We (five musicians: David = Italian pianist in the cellar's Piano Bar; Frederico = Italian pianist in the hotel lounge; the Huddies = duo giggers in the cellar's Muli Bar; and me = goof in the cellar's Stübli Bar; plus random guests) park on bar stools and take-over half of the three-sides-of-a-square bar while the rest of the world enjoys fancy at-a-table dining. We're considered the least important clients, thus, our meal times vary with the randomness of the dining population (dogs are welcome). All in all? Spoiled rotten.

Back to chronologicality . . . I found my room where I was temporarily crashing until David (another David- this one's an Irish troubador who played the Stübli Bar in Dec) moved out of the flat where I'd call January home. The room was in the hotel's cellar- fine and all- bed, shower, TV (no luck searching late-nite for the Orange Bowl- the porno channel was the only thing I could understand), right down the hall from all the cellar bars. The story was that they house folks with broken legs there. Not sure what that really means as there's a workable lift in the hotel. I caught a bit of David's aprés-ski set at the Stübli where I'd be taking over the next day. Sparse, mellow crowd. I was waiting to witness the night shift. David showed me the basics of the gig. I met the Portugese bar staff one by one: Domingos- been there 25 years is the story- he's in charge and speaks enough English to communicate thoughts (my Portugese is limited to man-of-war); Gentil- he's been there 10 years and gives me a ride home some nites- his English is enough to communicate that he's leaving if I want a ride (my Portugese is limited . . .); and Antonio- he speaks no English (his English is better than my Portugese). They're all really nice guys out to have some fun if the drinks are all served. As figurehead, Domingos does more networking while the other two do more running around.

The Stübli is a dark-wood-everywhere rectangle, about 5m deep x 10m long x 4m tall (2.54cm/inch . . . 12 inches in a foot . . .). The entrance door opens into a corner along a long wall with coat hooks on the right, a non-service bar on the left and the stage straight ahead in the corner. The stage rises about 0.2m off the floor; it's a 1m x 0.6m mostly off-limits haven. The 'tween the n.s. bar and coat hook zone bottlenecks. A small alcove to the right just past the coat hooks houses a table- folks cram around this table as a sort of safety zone. To stage right (or, as ya come in, to the left of the stage- right and left river banks, red right returning, exit stage left- perspective is meaty), three more tables line the wall with colored windows as a backdrop. To the left, the service bar extends about half-way from the back wall towards the door. A couple bar stools, some lights, a few windows above the tables and there's the Stübli. Dungeon-esque.

Back to our tale . . . I crashed a bit (I took a few days to recover from the sleep-deprivation of the holidees) and got up somewhere pre-midnite. I encountered Bryan in the hall outside my room and he recommended that I shouldn't walk around in a ratty t-shirt. Ok. I put on my only non-t-shirt I had along (it's since become my dinner shirt) and went out to enjoy a Thu nite- my one nite off in St Mz. So, of course, I checked out the cellar gigs. The Muli where the Huddies play had a nice crowd, folks sitting at candled tables, some mellower tunes. The Stübli was a fire marshall's citation quota for the year. David was cranking out high energy tunes, it was a battle to get in the door and I didn't move much farther than that. Folks were up on the tables (which at one point had candles, and drinks, on them) dancing and shouting along with song choruses they knew. Hazy was the air- fire fighters wear respirating gear when entering cleaner environs. Yes, the place was mad. It's hyped in one to-do brochure as "oft wilder als im Westen" (my Berlitz Deutsche tells me that means "often wilder than the west"- any Deutsche scholars can correct that), and ads for it have a dude tossing down a shot. I've come to determine that folks show up here when they want to get all stupid silly and not care about consequences to their surroundings. The personnel manager told me that the tables are reinforced so that they can hold lots of folks (it went on to a discussion of frivolous U.S. lawsuits with he and the owner of the hotel). I've yet to see anyone booted from the joint for bad behavior (there haven't been too many instances where I thought "if that guy got removed it'd be a nicer atmosphere"). I stuck around long enough to research how the crowd reacted to several tunes. I then went and chilled at the Huddies' gig. We ended up at the Piano Bar til 5 am, getting champagne and beer poured for us, all on a dude the Huddies knew. That joint is much swankier than the Muli Bar and the Muli's loads nicer than the Stübli.

The next day I sound checked and played the 17:00-18:00 aprés-ski set, sitting down, kickin mellow, opening with "Blowin in the Wind". First request = "Angie" (it came with a beer). I checked with Domingos to make sure of the music format- mellow afternoon, then he said that late in the evening the folks like to get on the tables and dance so I should play music that encourages that. Fine, let's crank it up. But first, I had to vacate my cellar room and relocate to St Mz Bad.

I ended up on the top floor of a four floor apartment building (stairs = good) in an efficiency. That includes toilet, shower, fridge, burner, bed(s), and, actually, an entrance hall. Luxury. The cleaning lady comes every Tues and brings clean towels and sheets. Crazy catering. The heaters work. The lights work. The hot water is hot. The window has a mountain view (it also allows a peek into the true St Mz life- dump trucks dumping snow into the river; cops enacting a late-nite sobriety check; fire truck's aerial bucket used for changing light pole banners; tiny specks of skiers descending the cross-town mountain; walkers) and the sun doesn't come thru it until around noon (in the shadow of the mountain). All the trimmings. It's a 20 min uphill walk to gig/dinner/email. Healthy. But, on this day, I took the bus with the Huddies. Feasted and went to gig.

I came unprepared. I kinda figured I did. This is a tough gig. I showed up as if biking a century ride (100 miles of foolery) and only did a couple 20 mile rides the week before. The voice wasn't worked up for nightly craziness. But, there's gigging to do! The first night was great- yeah, I had enough for at least one strong night. A bit of an adrenaline rush helped fuel the frenzy- kinda like pedaling out of the gate a couple mph faster than planned for the first 10 miles. Around mile 20, ya wonder why ya speedily started. But, it was one of the busiest Fridees of the year and I had to entertain. All in all, things (I thought) went ok- someone offered me a gig in Luzerne (language difficulties made details sketchy). Feeling out a new room always takes a few tries- which tunes work and which don't and which make the place gonzo. Gonzo- "Country Roads" is the hottest button- thru 13 nites I've played it 35 times (I figured I'd count after three rounds of it on night #1). Hee hee hee hee. Give 'em what they want. "Sweet Home Alabama" runs a close second and joining the most requested (and usually at least twice-a-nite) are: "Summer of 69", "Breakfast at Tiffany's", "Knockin' on Heaven's Door", "Wonderwall", "Losing My Religion", "Otherside". I took all three 20 min breaks- as has become the norm- much the way a nice stretch of downhill allows for getting off the saddle and coasting- a quick recharge. Initially, the nite gig left the gate at 22:00 and released me at 2:00- 4 x 45 min sets. As if cruising into the first rest stop to rest and refuel, the body was welcoming the first nite's finish. Domingos said the night went ok but he thought the people should have been dancing more. We'll work on that next.

The next day's aprés-ski was chill. A couple from Hanover, Germany offered me a gig. Very nice. That nite's gig went better, although the voice didn't rally. For the first week, it seemed to be on one nite and off the next- tired voice or body (too active during the day?)? I swore off high register tunes for a bit. I played one more aprés-ski and then freed my afternoon by adding an extra set to the nite gig (5 x 45' sets, 22:00 - 2:45, 4 x 15' breaks). Pros and cons. The mellowness of the afternoon was good relaxing warm up for the voice. But, I'd rather have my afternoons free! So, to battle the situation, I geared down, I caught a drafting line, I hydrated and voided with the best Depends wearers. A major key change operation occurred, knocking a bunch of tunes to lower singing pitches, and some new arranging dropped octaves. I even found a comfortable singing key for "Hotel California" and it has since been scratched from the axis of evil. That, combined with timely tune selecting, thus letting the howl-along patrons do the work, has given the voice enough of a pull-back that we're in a really good rhythm right now. Gigging for 29+ straight nites needs a little respect. The one big difference between 100 miles on a bike and a perpetual gig is that with proper treatment the voice is getting stronger. But, "American Pie" and "Satisfaction" don't sound right in any other key- so, there are still some potholes to steer around. Now, a whole other issue is the smoke. It's happened where I thought I couldn't see folks clearly on the other side of the room due to lights in the face, but I've blocked the lights and it's the thick haze that distorts the view. It gets the voice scratchy- usually by the third set. But, last nite, lots of smokers cleared out and by nite's end the singing was clearing up. So, not only should I sing lots more before embarking on a gig marathon, I oughta smoke a half dozen cigars a day.

The folks partying in Stübli are pretty cool. It's a joint where folks in their early 20's (thus, the liking of more modern tunes than the Copenhagen crowds) working in St Mz for the season go to party- lots are there to do some hooking up. Although I've not been anywhere else, I've heard the drinks are the cheapest in town (CHF6 for 30 cl beer, CHF9 for 50 cl beer (about 36 cl in a 12 oz can, . . .)) at Stübli and Muli. The beer's not real potent either- I've yet to get drunk- I've also not attempted a beer or die kinda nite. Aside from the regulars, the holidayers are a grab bag. One night dudes were trying to circumnavigate the bar without touching the floor- hanging by ducts, walking on tables. I couldn't really get mad at one dude because I saw it coming. While I was on break, he tried to set down on a stool on the stage and knocked it over into my gitter, putting a nice scratch in the back. Another dude got mad at me because I didn't play a song that he said I promised him, although I really told him that I didn't know the song (I'm not sure if this was a language issue- but he seemed to understand when we had the earlier discussion). The requesters that don't acknowledge that you played their request crack me up. I make sure I point out where the request came from when that happens. I get some random requests and Nancy Reagan doesn't echo in my head . . . "just say no" - was that Nancy? I don't know. Anyway, I often embark on a lyricless versed, repetitive chorussed skeleton of the tune. Who knows the verse lyrics to "Achy Braky Heart"? (who knows how to spell that?) Plenty of cool folk with nice things to say, plenty of beers bought for me. Sold a CD to a couple from southern Suisse. Met a British chap who worked at Ft Dietrich (Fred-neck, MD) a couple years and must've been the first guy Mike Myers encountered when he sought inspiration for his Austin Powers character. Other giggy things- busted both thin picks in the first week (I experimented with them to try and reduce string breakage- they offered little control); busted, I believe, my first ever low E string- that's the real fat one; power amp cut out one nite during "Sounds of Silence"- hmmm . . . - overheated- needed a good shot to the side to get the fan blowing again; been hit by two projectiles- not sure their source although the bar staff likes to toss things around. Overall, the gigging's been grand. The folks like to sing along and dance on the tables and benches and floor and seem to dig the tunes. Domingos is happy with the "good music" (although I've yet to learn a Shakira tune for him- that's all that gets played during my breaks- the saturation bombing's sold me a CD). So, as long as I take only what the voice gives me (which is plenty to do the gig), we'll be cruising into Copenhagen Feb 1 ready for another 100 miles.
Is this long? It seems like it to me. Someone wants to use the computer (here in Hotel Schw) so this might be a good time to wrap it up. Hope all's cool back in USA and GO TERPS! this weekend (daggamum Winston-Salem . . . grumble grumble grumble)!