Friday, August 22, 2014

Thoughts on ‘God Help the Girl’

Typically, Chris S. is able to dispatch the whole God Help the Girl project with a look of righteous indignation and the proclamation that Stuart Murdoch has got the horn — which is much the funniest way of looking at it, but there is a bit more to say, I think. It’s affecting, is the first thing, which is a relief. It works, as a rite of passage movie, about a young Australian woman, Eve, who naïvely follows where her true love leads, to Glasgow, and ends up a heartbroken anorexic. The film is the story of her recovery, through — friends and music? Through a band, certainly. She plays songs on her own on the hospital’s piano, then she magically improvises ‘The Psychiatrist is In’ in her flatmate James’ room, while he strums a guitar, dumbfounded. They add Cassie to their number because James already plays music with her. She marches on a machine in an exercise park (instant comedy) as the other two discuss how to make a great pop record. Eve is still fragile, and doesn’t want to involve any other people. James is clear: if you’re making a pop record, you need drums and bass. He is the motivator early on, taking Eve and Cassie out on canal expeditions in a canoe, and providing the learned pop narrative in which, in his vision, the band (I don’t think they’re actually called God Help the Girl in the film) need to exist. It takes Eve a while to notice the flaw with this vision, which is that it doesn’t include an audience, particularly. James wants to make the perfect record on his own terms; Eve comes to realise that the thing she wants is to sing to people, and connect with them.

These musical differences are paralleled romantically, when Eve, instead of taking up with the nice chap who has rescued her from despair, opts for a brooding, masterful Frenchman, who treats her bad and gives her the horn. James concentrates on making himself and his behaviour perfect in his own eyes, and unimpeachable in Eve’s; but unimpeachable is not sexy. Unimpeachable doesn’t grab the moment. So the film embodies the whole indier-than-thou / Pop! debate: it’s about ambition and integrity, and it seems to side with the notion that integrity without ambition is not worth the bedsit it’s concocted in. Just like Belle and Sebastian embraced their fame and became a proper pop band. But they didn’t leave Glasgow to do it, so it feels a little odd to see Eve get on a train to London at the end, to go to music college.

So maybe that’s not it: maybe James is the moral victor, setting off with Cassie and her tandem, back out of Central Station, knowing that, at nearly twenty five, his (quite local) wandering days are not over yet.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Morrissey — ‘Autobiography’

When there is no matching of lives, and we live on a strict diet of the self, the most intimate bond can be with the words we write:
Oh often have I washed and dressed
     And what’s to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I’ve done my best
     And all’s to do again.
I ask myself if there is an irresponsible aspect in relaying thoughts of pain as inspiration, and I wonder whether [A. E.] Housman actually infected the sensitives further, and pulled them back into additional darkness. (p.96)
Whenever I have gone off Morrissey, this has been the reason. I never wondered the same thing about Joy Division or Throwing Muses, whose music is darker than The Smiths’, and which I discovered, as a tortured (not literally) teenager at about the same time. There is a peculiar complacency to Morrissey’s outlook which is much more rare than the ability to turn a depressive teenage anthem. ‘You should not go to them / Let them come to you’ is part of it: the attempt at self-sufficiency by a man so obviously in need of company. That line is good advice, though: the best way for the socially awkward to reach out is not to plunge into society and alienate everyone by being socially awkward. Far better to record a string of urgent, wounded pop LPs, sit back and hold court at interview, now that everyone wants your opinion. It’s also dangerous advice, because you could sit forever in your room waiting for the knock from Johnny Marr that never comes.

Autobiography gives real insight into the state Morrissey had got himself into before that knock. This is brave:
I am cross-examined at Stretford Sorting Office as there are postman vacancies, and this is the most I consider possible. Yet it isn’t, because I am turned down — deemed physically and psychologically incapable of delivering letters. There is now no escape but death. (p. 121)
How many people would put that in their autobiography? Without passing it off as a joke, because he is perfectly serious. A specific account of this sort is not something which could be easily fitted into a song, though there are several lines which surely link back to the experience (‘I was looking for a job…’; ‘I tried living in the real world instead of a shell / But before I began / I was bored before I even began’). It’s sad to read about such isolation, but… I used to hate job interviews. Now I just avoid them completely, knowing that there is no point. As per usual, it is at once a comfort and a dangerous invitation to apathy to get self-validation on the subject from Morrissey. But look what he can do, simultaneously:
The Ramones are models of ill health, playing backwards, human remains washed ashore, so much condensed into a single presentation, and it is outstanding. Change! Change! Change! It doesn’t happen by being the same as everybody else. (p. 112)
The pre-Smiths section is more vital than the Smiths section (just as Strangeways, Here We Come is no Meat is Murder), which mostly consists of side swipes at Geoff Travis and the hippies at Rough Trade. The break-up has no explanation. Johnny sees him a few years later and realises that Morrissey doesn’t know why it happened, but fails to elaborate. The widely reported section on the Mike Joyce trial wasn’t quite as stodgy as I’d feared, and presents a convincing page-by-page rebuttal of judge John Weeks’ conclusions. He says that Joyce was after 25% of The Smiths’ total income, rather than the 10% of the profits that he signed up to. He never says what the 10% or the 25% would be in pounds, though: I felt that a real Penguin Classic would have offered footnotes here, putting the argument in context.

Fortunately, Autobiography manages a second tour-de-force section as it draws to a close, and as Morrissey tours the world to adoring audiences. He reflects on the phenomenon of himself, much as he did previously on the nonentity of himself:
The streets flood with Morrissey. I do not know what to do with all this happiness. Viva Hate emblems; art-hound T’s, tank tops and bags graffitied in Morrissey-code. Most of all, every arm, every neck, every hand mobbered with a Morrissey tatoo. Fresno! Fresno! Fresno! Here is the light! And never go out. (p. 413)
This is not simply self-congratulation, it is fandom of fandom, it is communication on the grandest scale to and from someone incapable of it on the smallest. It is fascinating to see him feed on the love and the roar and the surge of the crowd, which is undeniably something, even if ultimately it becomes part of his solipsism. His saving grace is that he does not take them for granted, and he is up for the fight — as once he was not — to stave off irrelevance:
I will border on silliness — anything at all to avoid self-indulgence replacing the old hunger, for that is the route they all go, and can’t help but go. (p. 408)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Herman Melville — ‘Moby Dick; or, The Whale’

In 1995, I left a Wordsworth Classics edition of Moby Dick in the drawer of the bedside table when I moved out of Belmont Halls of Residence. That, and a thick hardback religious book I had had pressed upon me by an evangelist of some sort, still shrink-wrapped (no idea which book or religion). Between then and now, my room got stove by the commercialisation of university accommodation, replaced by Belmont Flats, a peculiarly angular construction, too jaunty for the acute angles to have any edge. But perhaps they are no worse than the drab ’60s concrete I remember. I left Moby Dick behind in frustration at not having finished it (and the religious book in embarrassment at having accepted it). I’ve seldom felt tempted to go back to it, because, for one thing, it’s 600 pages about the most reviled form of hunting there has ever been, and for another, good novels have to feature men and women, don’t they? There was no way it wasn’t going to be full of blood, guts and machismo. But The Confidence Man turned out to be great, and so did ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’; then Leviathan was one huge advert for reading it, so now seemed the right time to have another go. And do you know what? It is particular, inquisitive, inventive beyond belief. It even (occasionally) has animal rights tendencies:
Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take up a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that Fejee, I say, in the day of judgement, than for thee, civilised and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in their paté-de-fois-gras. (p. 327)
On the other hand it delights in gore, as in the chapter ‘The Shark Massacre’, when sharks are attracted by a whale carcass moored to the Pequod, and are kept at bay by Queequeg and Stubb, who hack at them with ‘whale-spades’:
They viciously snapped, not only at each other’s disembowelments, but like flexible bows, bent round, and bit their own; till those entrails seemed swallowed over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound. (p. 329)
Isn’t that a great image? So pregnant with allegory, it could stand for hunting or consumerism; and it could certainly stand for Captain Ahab’s insane passion for catching Moby Dick, which eats away at him, but feeds him at the same time (what would he be without it? It is his only characteristic). Melville has a knack of creating irresistible images like this, the bigger and more grotesque the better. He has the crew of the Pequod catch a second whale before the first has been processed, and the heads of the two creatures are hung on either side of the ship:
The carcases of both whales had dropped astern; and the head-laden ship not a little resembled a mule carrying a pair of over-burdening panniers. (p. 358)
One is a sperm whale, the other is a right whale. He takes the opportunity to compare the anatomy of the two creatures:
standing in the Right Whale’s mouth, look around you afresh. Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes? (p. 366)
On to the sperm whale:
you observe that the mouth is entirely under the head, much in the same way, indeed, as though your own mouth were entirely under your chin. Moreover you observe that the whale has no external nose; and that what nose he has — his spout hole — is on the top of his head, nearly one third of his entire length from the front. (p. 368)
Just as Leviathan spends a good chunk of its length being a book not about whales but about Melville and Moby Dick, so Moby Dick itself spends the absolute bare minimum of its time being anything one might recognise as a novel. Ahab aside, its characters (and arguably the story) are relatively unimportant, compared to the great task of explaining all about whales and whaling. I’ve never read a novel with so much technical information, but it is riveting technical information. In chapter 72, ‘The Monkey-rope’, the process of flensing a whale (removing its skin and blubber) is described. A large hook is suspended from high up in the ship’s rigging, and attached to the blubber near the tail of the whale carcass floating alongside. Cuts are made, with the whale-spades, in a spiral around the whale’s body, to allow the skin and blubber to be peeled away like an orange skin. But here’s the crazy part: supervising the process is a man (here Queequeg) standing on the mostly-submerged whale carcass as it spins, surrounded by sharks trying to get at the flesh, and attached by this monkey-rope to a man on deck (Ishmael) whose job it is to jerk him back in to position whenever he slips or falls. Melville admits in a footnote to embroidering the truth: ‘The monkey-rope is found in all whalers; but it is only in the Pequod that the monkey and its holder were ever tied together’ (p. 350). This allows him an analogy with the dependence inherent in the human condition: ‘If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die’ (p. 349). There is an undercurrent of attraction, too, between Ishmael and Queequeg: the latter dresses for the flensing ‘in the Highland costume — a skirt and socks — in which to my eyes at least, he appeared to uncommon advantage’ (p. 348). Love, too, is a monkey-rope.

I have covered fewer than twenty five pages of Moby Dick above. It is so dense with amazing thoughts, images, analogies, and raw information; it is like no other novel, and it gains stature from its imposing subject, rather than losing it from its circumscribed cast of characters. When I’d just started reading it, my mum asked, ‘Who is your sympathy with, the whalers or the whale?’, and I’ve thought about that a lot without coming to a conclusion. Ahab is not a sympathetic character, but neither is Moby Dick, who is equally gnarled and grotesque. I think he is a warning, though: his rage is justified, whereas Ahab’s is not. Sadly, his rebellion against the fishery (apparently based on fact) could not hope even to slow down its exploitation.

Monday, May 26, 2014

‘Dexys: Nowhere is Home’, Monorail Film Club screening at the GFT, 25th May

At the Q & A after the film, people didn’t want to ask questions so much as to tell Kevin Rowland how much his music means to them. They wanted to tell him what it’s like, living with this impassioned, insanely well crafted quicksilver, that can ground you even as it soars, pull you together as it explodes. One woman said she felt that One Day I’m Going to Soar surpassed even Don’t Stand Me Down, and asked him which record gave him more personal satisfaction. ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar,’ he said. ‘Massively.’ Against the myth, he thought that the earlier record hadn’t had a bad reception, there had been some supporters, but everything had come right this time around. From finding singer Madeleine Hyland through a friend at a market, to the way songs written over a period of years clicked together into a single narrative, even that the run of shows at the Duke of York’s Theatre fortuitously extended to allow Kieran Evans and Paul Kelly time to put this film together. If I had had a question, it would have been, ‘You know some of us put My Beauty up there with your other four masterpieces?’, because it’s well overdue the kind of resuscitation afforded Don’t Stand Me Down over its several reissues. And he would have said ‘What’s the question?’ as he did when one chap asked about Searching for the Young Soul Rebels being so, so great. ‘No part twos, ever’, he said, when he asked why they hadn’t made another LP like it.

I was lucky enough to see one of the One Day I’m Going to Soar concerts, at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh (there’s a slightly perfunctory review of it, and the following day’s soup, here), and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, of course it was. The oddest aspect was the burlesque act which opened proceedings, but this, if it was the same in London, didn’t make it to the film (and neither did ‘Come on Eileen’). Instead, it begins with: ‘You know what? I was a no-hoper. Prison was a possibility’, those striking words from the trailer; but in the film they’re not a voice over, Kevin’s head fills the screen, and you think you’re in for some big confession. Then the quiet opening bars of the album play over twilight shots of the theatre and its immediate surroundings, of people coming and going. Then another segment of interview, in which Kevin and Jim Paterson, seated in the stalls of the empty theatre, signally fail to follow up on the prison comment. Then into the second half of opening song ‘Now’: ‘Attack, attack!’, suddenly you’re there in the front row, or onstage with them, as the show kicks into life.

And what a show it is. Where there had been a screen on stage in Edinburgh with a projection of Madeleine Hyland for ‘She Got a Wiggle’, in the film she’s lounging on a divan with a cigarette holder, behind and above Kevin and the rest of the band. Not wiggling, for sure, but the song has a tightrope to tread: to convey how sexy this woman is, while displaying her, wearing a big leather frock and suspenders, somehow without objectifying her. The way the drums lock in to that slow foreboding groove give the imagined wiggle menace, though, and titillation seems a million miles away. The character Hyland plays is about as developed as a Dickens heroine, there is nothing to her beyond her looks and her clothes. I’m not criticising her performance, which is great, but she acts solely as Kevin’s muse, the out of focus flame to his well delineated moth, an ideal with no rough edges, no characteristics beyond a smouldering sexuality, hurt, and a combustible temper when the occasion calls for it. Which it does half way through ‘I’m Always Going to Love You’, the tipping point of the album and the show. Kevin coaxes Madeleine with unconditional devotion, and she joins in, singing ‘I’m always going to love you’ back to him. This registers, and he sings: ‘We’re always going to, we’re always going to love...’. But there is nowhere for the syntax to go, other than ‘each other’, which would be an inconceivably ugly end to the line, so he sings instead, ‘I think I’m going round the bend / Now we must end’. And everything falls apart.

Back at the Q & A, asked about compromise by Duglas T. Stewart, Kevin showed himself to be a little more flexible than might have been expected. He talked about the 2003 shows he did with Dexys, when he was broke and about to get married. He did them because he needed the cash. But he got too interested in them, he got more into Dexys than he was into the idea of getting married; and anyway, he said, they spent so much on rehearsing and staging them that they didn’t make any money. In the film, he talked about how he didn’t want to be too chummy with his audience: if you’re a fan he’s not your mate, he’s not on Facebook chatting and stirring up a buzz. He wants to make the records, perform the shows, and that’s his audience interaction, the fact that he’s paid us the compliment of making something that’s good. So good. Again and again, five times now (is it six? I must track down The Wanderer). It’s scary that this is so far from the norm as to sound like a revolutionary idea, but I think he has hit on an important truth. Work can so easily be diluted by marketing, and marketing is no longer the preserve of corporations, any more than releasing records is: everyone’s at it.

The film continues beyond the One Day I’m Going to Soar material into the encores, including the beautiful, slow version of ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’, and climaxes with a full-length ‘This is What She’s Like’, which automatically makes it a brilliant film. The interspersed interview doesn’t slow the show’s momentum, though Kevin is quite guarded (he was a bit less so at the Q & A). There are some deft directorial touches, like the screen test style shots of fans outside the venue towards the end, standing still, looking into the camera; or the startling shot of Hyland looking into the mirror after performing, close to tears. For the most part, though, this is a concert film, documenting a spectacular stage show, and coming closer than should really be possible to matching the live event for thrills.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Richard P. Feynman — ‘The Character of Physical Law’

‘A’ hates his mother. The reason is, of course, because she did not caress him or love him enough when he was a child. But if you investigate you find out that as a matter of fact she did love him very much, and everything was alright. Well then, it was because she was over-indulgent when he was a child! By having a vague theory it is possible to get either result. The cure for this one is the following. If it were possible to state exactly, ahead of time, how much love is not enough, and how much love is over-indulgent, then there would be a perfectly legitimate theory against which you could make tests. It is usually said when this is pointed out, ‘When you are dealing with psychological matters things can’t be defined so precisely’. Yes, but then you cannot claim to know anything about it.
The person who recommended this book did so at least partly, I suspect, because of this attitude. He has amusingly little tolerance for psychology, and less for history: they’re bullshit, because they’re made up, or not sufficiently provable, just as the cause of ‘A’’s hatred isn’t in Feynman’s scenario above (though he is attacking vagueness, not psychology as a whole). Usually I would have just as little tolerance for someone who writes things like ‘the reason is, of course, because’*, but this is a fascinating book of lectures, and the speed at which it powers along in this occasionally ungrammatical vein is really helpful if you’ve never read a science book before and all of a sudden here is quantum physics. It’s something of a high wire act, breaking down extremely complicated ideas into explanations and analogies which make sense to the non-specialist reader. There are very few equations, and there is plenty of repetition of key concepts that you might have forgotten from earlier on: if he is developing a concept, he doesn’t assume you remember what it was, which is a help if you hadn’t quite grasped the previous explanation. For example:
This is called the principle of relativity, that uniform motion in a straight line is relative, and that we can look at any phenomenon from either point of view and cannot say which one is standing still and which one is moving.
If we are unable, by any experiment, to see a difference in the physical laws whether we are moving or not, then if the conservation of charge were not local only a certain kind of man would see it work right, namely the guy who is standing still, in an absolute sense. But such a thing is impossible according to Einstein’s relativity principle, and therefore it is impossible to have non-local conservation of charge.
It’s a little unfair to quote these things out of context, precisely because they do work by accumulation. Feynman elucidates gravity, angular momentum, relativity, the laws of conservation and symmetry, winding up with the movement of electrons as both particles and waves, and a discussion of how physics might develop in the future (he’s talking in 1965, so there’s no Higgs Boson, but CERN exists, and he does talk about discoveries happening through high energy collisions). There are some dazzling asides, like his explanation of how carbon can form in a star, when the only other elements present are hydrogen and helium, and how this happy accident is likely to be the cause of life as we know it. He also explains how it is that there are two tides for every one rotation of the earth, and how it might be possible to communicate with aliens in terms of physics: he can discuss dimensions, because he relates them to hydrogen atoms, but because of anti-matter he doesn’t have a way of distinguishing left from right. It also turns out that he doesn’t hate psychology or history after all:
all the sciences, and not just the sciences but all the efforts of intellectual kinds, are an endeavour to see the connections of the hierarchies, to connect beauty to history, to connect history to man’s psychology, man’s psychology to the working of the brain, the brain to the neural impulse, the neural impulse to the chemistry, and so forth, up and down, both ways. And today we cannot, and it is no use making believe that we can, draw carefully a line all the way from one end of this thing to the other, because we have only just begun to see that there is this relative hierarchy.

* Actually it seems that the lectures were never written, only transcribed, which makes this more forgivable.

Open Culture has the whole lecture series online.

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