Saturday, June 27, 2015

Wyndham Wallace — ‘Lee, Myself and I: Inside the Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood’

The strings are like veins swelling with blood — slowly at first, then increasingly uninhibited. A hint of horn and a tease of oboe offer brief flashes of bare skin, the melody floating over its surface. The song suddenly shifts up a key, and I gasp: it’s like we’ve reached the peak of a treacherous mountain, and now, below us, as clouds part, we’ve discovered at last hidden hillsides and dark, unknown forests. I’m entering Freudian territory. Man, I really am stoned. (p. 31)

This is a description of ‘Leather and Lace’ from Cowboy in Sweden — of Wyndham Wallace hearing it for the first time, and getting it right between the thighs. It’s the early ’90s. He’s been out to a Mark Eitzel show which finished abruptly when a heckler went too far causing Eitzel to storm off, and ended up, via a few games of pool, in a Camden flat inhabited by The Rockingbirds, hogging a joint and falling hard for Lee’s music. It’s some introduction, some description. Scenes of Wallace taking his first tentative steps in the music business from a privileged starting point which he sees as a disadvantage (how times change!) are woven in with his first meeting with Lee, five or six years later, in a hotel bar in New York. It doesn’t start well:
‘How the fuck old are you? Thirteen?’
I’m not even shit on his shoes. (p. 18)
Wallace is actually 27 by this point, and runs the UK arm of City Slang (or possibly is the UK arm of City Slang). Steve Shelley is in the process of re-releasing some of Lee’s records and has involved Wallace for UK promotion. Faxes have bleeped back and forth, and now the launch party has occasioned this meeting with his hero. It’s a bit tense, but he gets through it without alienating Lee too much.

The book is the story of how these unpromising beginnings lead to a real friendship. Lee is difficult, Wyndham indulgent; gradually trust starts to build. It’s also the story of a comeback: the discography at the back shows a prolific career losing momentum in the mid ’70s, skipping the ’80s entirely and never really getting its mojo back right until the end, with 2006’s Cake or Death. Though there are reminiscences of the glory days, the focus is necessarily on the nineties and noughties, some comeback concerts (particularly at Nick Cave’s Meltdown in 1999 — though Cave’s one appearance in the book is stand-off-ish in the extreme), and Lee’s cancer, of which he died in 2007. It’s a fine memoir, but it makes you thirst for a similarly meticulous account of the sixties and seventies. A project to get down some of Lee’s anecdotes while he can still tell them is mooted late on, but there’s a problem with that idea: ‘Lee rarely speaks about the music on his old records. He’ll talk until your smile muscles ache about all sorts of things, but not the contents of the albums he made.’ (p. 195). There are a few indications in the book that there was a depressive side to Lee – at least, that he was a man who needed his own space. That made me think of ‘Friendship Train’, and the line ‘when you’re blue I’ll lie and say you’re not feeling like yourself today’. When you’ve sung that, really, why elaborate?

Except that one of the chief pleasures of this book is hearing Lee speak. It doesn’t much matter what about, and in fact, it’s hard to find anything very concise or even to the point. It’s just nice to do. Here he is reminiscing about making someone else’s records (‘Bubba’ is his nick-name for Wyndham):
        ‘You know, we started making Duane Eddy records in 1957, in Phoenix, Arizona. That’s over forty years ago. Corky Casey’ – he relishes the sound of her name as it rolls off his tongue – ‘played rhythm on a lot of them. She didn’t play in the band in person, but Corky was always on the records. You know, what Corky Casey may have been is the first American rock lady guitarist in America. I haven’t found anybody who can say otherwise, and I’ve talked to several people about it. They say, “1957? That’s waaaay back there, isn’t it?” So if you know of anyone, Bubba – and I don’t mean your grandmother who played in a band – then I think you ought to tell me.’
        ‘I don’t think my grandmother ever played in a band,’ I laugh, surprised by the notion, since I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned her before. ‘She was more of a wannabe poet.’
        ‘Aha! I like the sound of her.’ (p. 96)
Miss you, Lee.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

P. G. Wodehouse — ‘Something Fresh’

        ‘What cheese would you recommend?’
        ‘The gentlemen are speaking well of the gorgonzola.’
        ‘All right, bring me some. You know, Adams, what I admire about Americans is their resource. Mr Peters tells me that, as a boy of eleven, he earned twenty dollars a week selling mint to saloon-keepers, as they call publicans over there. Why they wanted mint I cannot recollect. Mr Peters explained the reason to me, and it seemed highly plausible at the time, but I have forgotten it. Possibly for mint-sauce. It impressed me, Adams. Twenty dollars is four pounds. I never earned four pounds a week when I was a boy of eleven. In fact, I don’t think I ever earned four pounds a week. His story impressed me, Adams. Every man ought to have an earning capacity…. Tell me, Adams, have I eaten my cheese?’
        ‘Not yet, your lordship, I was about to send the waiter for it.’
        ‘Never mind. Tell him to bring the bill instead. I remember that I have an appointment. I must not be late.’
        ‘Shall I take the fork, your lordship?’
        ‘The fork?’
        ‘Your lordship has inadvertently put a fork in your coat-pocket.’
        Lord Emsworth felt in the pocket indicated, and, with the air of an inexpert conjuror whose trick has succeeded contrary to his expectations, produced a silver-plated fork. He regarded it with surprise, then he looked wonderingly at Adams.
        ‘Adams, I’m getting absent-minded. Have you ever noticed any traces of absent-mindedness in me before?’
        ‘Oh, no, your lordship.’ (pp. 43–4)
Once upon a time, I doted on Wodehouse, and particularly the Blandings stories. Their appeal is simple: it’s an idyll, a place it’s charming and relaxing to visit (Trollope’s Barsetshire has a similar attraction at times, though it’s obviously more extensive and less comic. But there are real points of crossover: both The Small House at Allington and Something Fresh feature breach of promise to marry as a theme). They turn on the character of the Clarence, Ninth Earl of Emsworth, who wants to be left alone by the world to potter around Blandings, enjoying the gardens, and looking in on the Empress, his prize pig, around whose condition (i.e. fatness) various labyrinthine plots are constructed. The recent BBC TV series got it all wrong by being madcap: Blandings is about calm. Of course things happen to intrude on that calm, generally to imperil the Empress’ girth when she’s about to be entered into a show, and then the Earl will be troubled, within his exceedingly narrow focus. But it’s a joy to observe that narrow focus, and a comfort to watch his ruffled feathers settle as the status quo is restored. Something Fresh is the first Blandings novel, from 1915, and the pieces aren’t all in place yet (there’s no pig, and no Lady Constance to keep Clarence on his toes), but on the other hand it has characters who feel things for each other, and a plot stacked high with farcical potential.

The plot turns on a scarab that the Earl unconsciously pockets: the pride of the collection of American millionaire Mr Peters, whose daughter Aline has unaccountably become engaged to Freddie, the Earl’s vacant youngest son. Mr Peters is furious when he discovers the loss, but can’t accuse Emsworth of the theft for fear of jeopardising his daughter’s marriage. Emsworth becomes convinced that the scarab was intended as a present, and gives it a prominent place in the museum at Blandings castle. Mr Peters lets it be known he’d give $5000 to get the scarab back, which causes a rush of people (well, three) to the castle to retrieve it. Two of them pretend to be domestic servants: Joan Valentine, an old school friend of Aline Peters, who once was the target of a stream of love letters and poems from Freddie, whom she impressed as a chorus girl; and Ashe Marson, a fitness fanatic and reluctant writer of the Gridley Quayle detective stories which Freddie, cooped up at the castle with no allowance, adores. Joan pretends to be Aline’s maid, and Ashe the valet of Mr Peters — who, I forgot to mention, is dyspeptic and on a diet he can’t stand, of nuts and greens. Then there is R. Jones, whom Freddie has paid £500 to get back the letters he wrote to Joan, lest she raise a breach of promise case and endanger his marriage to Aline. Joan didn’t keep the letters, and tells R. Jones so. He leaves, and is just in time to listen at the door when Aline arrives, and tells Joan about the reward for the scarab. This gives him an idea for squeezing more money out of Freddie.

There’s more, but that’s the gist. Most characters have two functions which dovetail nicely into a wall of confusion. Now you mention it, it doesn’t actually sound all that calm; but don’t forget that the Earl is 99% oblivious. Without the pig to focus his attention, his only real concern is being at Blandings:
The Earl of Emsworth was one of the world’s leading potterers, and Sunday morning was his favourite time for pottering. Since breakfast he had pottered about the garden, pottered round the stables, and pottered about the library. He now pottered into the museum. (p. 213)
Doesn’t that sound delightful?

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Anthony Trollope – ‘The Small House at Allington’

Who does not know how terrible are those preparations for house-moving – how infinite in number are the articles which must be packed, how inexpressibly uncomfortable is the period of packing, and how poor and tawdry is the aspect of one’s belongings while they are thus in a state of dislocation? (p. 538)
Well, quite. S. and I moved earlier this year, to a house of our own, with an art room for her and a music room / library for me (hedging my bets), and while much of the house is tidy and functional, these two rooms are still Xanadus of boxes: all the things we couldn’t bear to part with, but aren’t strictly necessary. It’s ever so slightly tempting to lock them up and go digital. Mrs Dale and her two daughters, with whom Trollope sympathises above, don’t have that option, of course: it’s the 1860s, and they feel that their position as occupiers of the Small House at Allington is no longer tenable. They have lived there for many years, under the aegis of the squire, who lives next door at the Great House. His brother was Mrs Dale’s husband, and has left her a widow with a very small income. The squire, taking them under his wing in a practical sense, finds it impossible to show fondness (though it is not lacking) through his manner, so they always feel a little distant from him. When he tries to consolidate the family fortune, by marrying off the elder sister, Bell, to his nephew Bernard, they see it as a step outside his authority, and plan to leave the Small House for much plainer lodgings at nearby Guestwick. Whether they will go through with this or not gives some tension to the closing chapters of the book, alongside the greater question of whether Lily Dale will marry Johnny Eames. Certainly the book ends well, with these two gentle crescendos, and sets the reader up for more Barsetshire in the sixth and final book of the series.

While I did enjoy this book, and generally become more enamoured of Trollope the more I read, it didn’t quite live up to Framley Parsonage, which wove such a rich tapestry of old and new characters. The Small House feels more limited, though it’s unclear why this should be so: it takes in country, town, rich and… less rich. It contains a vicious and thoroughly enjoyable demolition job on the de Courcys, who move from respectable titled folk to in-fighting money-grubbing horror show without changing at all. There are scenes of clerk-dom at the Income Tax Office, which (say the notes) may draw on Trollope’s own time at the Post Office. There are comic scenes in a low rent guest house, and there is passionate, doomed love at Allington in two directions. There is a terrific scene showing how bored men get when women choose carpets. Money is everywhere, of course, but it’s not quite the actuating force it was in Framley Parsonage. Greed is more generalised; want, too. The lessons to be drawn are perhaps a little obvious: don’t run from the arms of the one you love into those of the daughter of an earl for whom you don’t care a jot. And – on the other side – don’t fall in love with a swell; don’t be a Cathy for the first dashing man who comes along, because he probably isn’t a Heathcliff.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Robert Tressell – ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’

This is a big, polemical, bloody minded book about working men in the early 1900s, and – not their struggle against, but their acquiescence in the condition of poverty to which capitalism has brought them. They are taught from a young age not to question their situation, but to trust in their Liberal or Conservative political masters. Class divisions are absolute, and ‘the likes of us’, as the men refer to themselves, think only of beer, women, football and racing; never of anything that might improve their circumstances. The men live and work in Mugsborough, a town on the south coast of England, and they are house painters. For the first half of the book, they are engaged in doing up a house belonging to the head of the company they work for, Rushton & Co. They are bullied into working as fast as possible by a man variously known as Misery, Hunter and Nimrod, who is Rushton’s right-hand man. He does all Rushton’s dirty work, and all his thinking too: calculating the cost of jobs, and creeping around trying to catch the working men not working, in order to be able to sack one of them and keep the rest on their toes – and ideally to force down the wage for which they are prepared to work . Below him is the foreman of the job, Crass, who does his share of creeping, and gives himself the easy task of mixing paints. This hierarchy is rotten to the core, and is a microcosm of the system of commerce in the wider world, which rewards cunning and greed, and scorns talent and craftmanship:
What Misery did not know about scamping and faking the work, the men suggested to and showed him in the hope of currying favour with him in order that they might get the preference over others and be sent for when the next job came in. This is the principle incentive provided by the present system, the incentive to cheat. These fellows cheated the customers of their money. They cheated themselves and their fellow workmen of work, and their children of bread, but it was all for a good cause – to make profit for their master. (p. 462)
There is a lot of talk of the ‘present system’ in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The central character, Frank Owen, is a socialist, who tries to kindle a sense of outrage in his fellow workers. He tells them that money is the cause of their poverty, and they laugh at him, because it sounds like it makes no sense. But it does make sense:
money is the cause of poverty, because poverty consists in being short of the necessaries of life: the necessaries of life are all produced by labour applied to the raw materials: the raw materials exist in abundance and there are plenty of people able and willing to work; but under present conditions no work can be done without money; and so we have the spectacle of a great army of people compelled to stand idle and starve by the side of the raw materials from which their labout could produce abundance of all the things they need – they are rendered helpless by the power of Money! (p. 588)
Tressell goes so far as to prefer feudalism to capitalism:
It would have been much better for them if, instead of being ‘Freemen’, they had been slaves, and the property, instead of the hirelings, of Mr Rushton. (p. 315)
Because then he would have taken care of them, ‘as he would of his horse’. Money cuts ties, creates abstractions. Rushton can pay them when there is work to be done, and lay them off when there isn’t: it’s like a zero hour contract, without the contract. And so the workers strive for the right to earn not enough to live on, and when they are out of work they and their families starve. The council is run by Rushton and his cronies Sweater, Grinder and Didlum, purely for their own profit, and the only councillor who stands up to them, Weakling, is so unpopular he gets voted out. Not because he is unpleasant, or an ineffecive speaker, but because he is not selfish enough, and this puts him in a position of weakness, which the voters can’t stand. Everything continually gets worse, and Tressell has only contempt for the charities which claim to want to help:
If it were not for all this so-called charity the starving unemployed men all over the country would demand to be allowed to work and produce the things they are perishing for want of, instead of being – as they are now – content to wear their masters’ cast off clothing and to eat the crumbs that fall from his table. (p. 428)
Charity is invariably tied to the Church, which sanctifies ‘the system’, and never, ever does what Jesus would have done. Witness the vile Rev. Mr Belcher:
If he had removed the long garment, this individual would have resembled a balloon: the feet representing the car and the small head that surmounted the globe, the safety valve; as it was it did actually serve the purpose of a safety valve, the owner being, in consequence of gross overfeeding and lack of natural exercise, afflicted with chronic flatulance, which manifested itself in frequent belchings forth through the mouth of the foul gases generated in the stomach by the decomposition of the foods with which it was generally loaded. But as the Rev. Mr Belcher had never been seen with his coat off, no one ever noticed the resemblance. (p. 202)
He has been made ill by his disgusting over-indulgence, and the most disgusting thing of all is that the children of his Sunday school are made to collect money from people on the poverty line to send him on holiday to recover.

I kept expecting the workers and the unemployed to form a society to help themselves – the ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’of the book’s title. But they are too divided for that. The meaning of the phrase is actually the reverse: that the workers are the source of their masters’ riches, which they essentially donate, via the ‘money trick’ that forms the basis of Owen’s best lecture. Here is his illustration of that trick:

The solution to this problem? It’s not very likely to come about, I’m afraid:
Public Ownership of the Machinery, and the National Organisation of Industry for the production and distribution of the necessaries of life, not for the profit of a few but for the benefit of all! (p. 596)

Thanks to my Secret Santa for this book. I do like the fact that it came to me via work.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Hookers for Jesus Winter Revue Charity Show with Altres, Pauline M. Hynd, [Box] and Vex at Beat Generator Live!, 10th January

‘I am tired,’ said Miss Havisham. ‘I want diversion, and I have done with men and women. Play.’ (Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, chapter 8)
First, you should know about the stage dressing. Flagged in advance as a ‘Gothic Miss Havisham’s Christmas Day kind of vibe’, Daisy Dundee (who put the show on in collaboration with the Cool Cat Club) kitted the place out to startling effect. A wedding dress was the main prop, hung from the ceiling stage left, accompanied by a cake under a glass dome, an old stick telephone, a clock stopped at twenty minutes to nine, and a dead Christmas tree, still with its (white) lights on. There was also a table lamp and a portable fire with real fake flames. In the middle of all this, one of those mini reproduction Korg MS–20s, vintage from a different era, awaiting the arrival of Vex. Plus much other stage gear, and a screen showing images of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, and some crosses, drawn white on black. Not sure how they tied in exactly. A link between stoic male characters and Miss Havisham, possibly? Or characters with grudges?

For my taste, there was too much noise and not enough melody in the show. It was a shame Rowan Wright of Blood Indians had to pull out, she would have redressed that balance a bit. Returning DJ Duncan did his best, and interlarded the noise with pop and jazz of the sprightliest order (Rodriguez! Nancy and Lee’s ‘Summer Wine’! The, er, James Bond theme!). Vex had the advantage of being the first noise act, and their racket was engagingly bloody minded, delivered from some dumb postures (the MS–20 was low, with no chair, so its player had to bend double for half an hour), and sounding to me like an extended version of Big Star’s ‘Downs’. Towards the end the front man held up his arms like a conductor trying to bring matters to a conclusion, and everyone stopped bar the keyboardist, who made some exaggerated movements as he continued to trigger (or failed to un-trigger) some ugly mechanical sound for a further few minutes. [Box], which is one man with a MacBook, a mixer and an electric guitar, made his usual drones, and William said they might sound good on acid. On beer, though — give me at least one out of rhythm, words, melody; who could care less about texture in their absence? Not that there weren’t some interesting shifts within the texture, but… too Wire magazine for me. It was some consolation to see these two anti-structure performers placed within a scene from Dickens, though.

Pauline M. Hynd, of The Onion Club, had to warm the room up again after [Box]’s freeze-out, and who better? It was strange to see her just get up and play songs on a guitar, with no grand entrance, no piano player, no 1920s schtick. Out with cabaret, in with blues. Candy, black crows flying, vocal acrobatics, and some much-needed momentum. ‘What a gorgeous audience,’ she said. ‘I’d like to lick you all.’ Most compelling was a cover of Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’, given a sinister edge and mixed with PJ Harvey’s couplet ‘Big fish little fish swimming in the water / Come back here and give me my daughter’ as a coda. Altres marked a move back to instrumental music, and… I don’t think I’ve written about them before, but playing music with two of them (but mainly Brian, the guitarist) is how I met S. Live, they can go either way, with their longform songs, digital synthesizer sound and tight arpeggiated riffs. They work best when a rhythm cuts through the texture. You can either get lost in the jam or the jam can lose you. Last night? A bit of both. I enjoyed it, but by the end I was longing for a chord change.

‘You’ll have to write a blog page,’ said Andy at the end of the night, before apologising for seeming to demand it. He’s right, though. It was a fine Hookers for Jesus show. He thought possibly their best, but there are several strong contenders for that crown. From their amazing, ridiculous debut in 2009, to other more accomplished shows, culminating in an Oxjam house gig early last year, acoustic with the addition of Anna on violin, and a beautiful song about a 1980 murder in Templeton Woods, which threatened never to be recorded in the inactivity which followed. Last night was a partial reprise, just in time, as Anna is to return to Canada in a few days’ time, leaving the remaining Hookers to — sound ugly again? They do a fantastic ugly sound, actually (see ‘Cabaret Song’, or ‘The Dead Don’t Dream’, which closed yesterday’s set in fiery fashion), but there has always been a softer undercurrent. Graeme’s introduction of classical / flamenco-inflected guitar was already a civilising strand, and his imagination won’t let them settle on a single sound, in any case. The flamenco style breathes new life into ‘Cindy’s on Fire’, and I wonder if I’m the person who has been listening to them play this song the longest, as I also wonder at its pull now, which wraps in the fondness of familiarity with a lightness it didn’t use to have. There are two new songs, one which passes me by somewhat, but one which is tender and magical, with its chorus of ‘I love you / P.S. fuck you’ and its through-gritted-teeth reflections on learning to accept the place where you live. The theme of the whole set, said Andy afterwards. That’s Dundee for you. And most other places too, which aren’t up their own importance. Miss Havisham could learn a lot from that. Pip, too. At the end, the Hookers join hands and bow like actors at the end of a play. That’s it: the violin phase is over. It sounded great. What next?

The two charities being supported last night were Dundee Young Carers and Dundee Foodbank.

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