Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tchotchke Table 3, Christmas Edition

Without wanting to get all het up and meta about years-end lists being arbitrary and unrepresentative, because what are records even for if you can’t use them to listen to years other than the one you’re in... Here are some things I liked this year which may or may not be from 2011.

  1. The Orchids – The Lost Star. Damn. I wasn’t going to put this list in order, but The Lost Star kind of demands it. It seeped into my bones over the course of several months, and is head and shoulders over their earlier comeback effort Good to be a Stranger.
  2. Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. More New Order than I had really been expecting (see ‘La Danseuse’), and with songs unexpectedly familiar via Kristin Hersh (twice, with ‘Coo Coo Bird’ and ‘Drunkard’s Special’), Bob Dylan and Nick Cave (‘Stackalee’), there was some serious underpinning here to the folkier side of all that I hold dear.
  3. Jon’s recommendations. However bookish this blog may get sometimes, the best thing about it has always been people getting in touch to say ‘I like The Pastels too’, which tends to lead in interesting directions. In the picture you can see some Django Reinhardt CDs, and one by Noël Akchoté. From this year he pointed out Azita’s amazing Disturbing the Air and from the ’90s, East Village, furthering the Dolly Mixture / Saint Etienne seam nicely. Thanks, Jon! (See also: the Brogues’ and Anneemall’s recommendations).
  4. Tenniscoats – Tokinouta. Told you these numbers were stupid. Pared back and extended, it never breaks the spell for a second.
  5. Laser-cut LP sleeves, specifically Bill Wells’ Lemondale and Muscles of Joy’s self titled debut. Beautiful objects, both. I don’t know either very well yet; it was only yesterday that S. said, of Lemondale’s title track, ‘“Lemondale”... “A Whiter Shade of Pale”’, and I felt daft for not getting it. The Muscles record has a great sound, not entirely un-late-Slits; the songs feel even less song-like than they do live, some interesting shapes going on.
  6. The Slap. I watched quite a lot of TV this year, and despaired of British series (apart from The Crimson Petal and the White, which was great), but from abroad, The Killing was utterly addictive, and The Slap was the kind of psychological, social, inter-relationship drama that the BBC can no longer do. The Hour and The Shadow Line were OK-ish in isolation, but very poor in comparison. Spiral was bonkers, and great too.
  7. Fairport Convention – Unhalfbricking. Like the Harry Smith box, a tributary of Joe Boyd’s book White Bicycles. I was shocked how much I liked this, having dismissed the band years before on the basis of one pop-free album from later on. This one is so free and warm. Nico’s Desertshore (another Boyd production), so constrained and cold, can share the number seven spot.
  8. Insides – Euphoria / Disco Inferno – The Five EPs. It’s actually DI’s Technicolour on the table, but The Five EPs finally got a real release this year. ‘The Last Dance’ is one of the best songs ever. I’d heard parts of Euphoria before (on a Guernica label sampler), but not the whole lot. These two were prompted by Neil Kulkarni’s wonderful ‘A New Nineties’ series of articles at The Quietus. Nostalgia as they used to do it in the good old days.
  9. The Beach Boys – SMiLE. After one listen, but, y’know. There’s a hissy 15 minute cut of ‘Good Vibrations’ I have on a tape somewhere, and the 8 minute version at the end of disc 2 has at least some of those transcendently laid back moments which didn’t make it into the single. Incredible to hear it all cleaned up and shiny.
  10. The A-Lords, Veronica Falls, Kate Bush, Brown Recluse – Evening Tapestry, Momus’ ‘Precocious Young Miss Calloway’, Viv Albertine – Flesh, Rozi Plain – Humans, Hong Kong in the 60s – My Fantoms, Vic Godard – Blackpool, The Middle Ones – It is the Rehearsal That Will Make This. That last one should definitely be higher up, actually, such a joyful, unaffected record. I nearly left it behind in the shop, too.

Monday, December 05, 2011

‘Lawrence of Belgravia’ and ‘Take Three Girls’, Glasgow Film Theatre, 4th December

In the old days the greatest thing in the world to be was a movie star. Today the greatest thing in the world is to be a pop singer. There will never be a great star unless the greatest thing in the world to be is that kind of star. (Orson Welles, in this 1974 interview.)
‘There were a few scenes that were... set up’, said Lawrence at the Q & A afterwards, on being asked why he hadn’t kept wearing the hat he’d chosen in a charity shop to replace his old, permanently affixed baseball cap. He and Paul Kelly, director of both of Sunday’s Monorail Film Club selections, were discussing the ways in which they’d avoided the pitfalls of the talking head documentary, all those old men reminiscing about how wild it used to be. They’d used interviews Lawrence happened to be doing anyway as a kind of substitute, with great lingering shots on the bemused faces of the interviewers. One with a blogger whose site he promised to check out once the interview was up: ‘A few weeks... well, I’ll have a look in general, to see what it’s like. If you write down the address we’ll have someone in the office bring it up.’ And then: ‘You’re a teacher? You don’t get paid for this?’ [Pause for the 21st century to sink in] ‘I knew the internet was shit.’ The idea of a Lawrence office is pretty ridiculous, it’s as though this was the moment he realised that things had opened up since the days of the charts: that anyone can do what they want, and probably someone, but probably not millions, will be interested. It should be the ideal climate for a man who makes novelty rock with provoking lyrics about African wars (‘Drinking Um Bongo’), cheap drugs (‘At the DDU’) and grim cities (‘City Centre’, ‘Building Site’). The fascinating thing is, he can’t see it that way, he still thinks he’s on his way to ’70s style megastardom.

Paul Kelly said he’d thought of doing six films about overlooked bands, but had run out of ideas after two: ‘Debsey [of Dolly Mixture] is my girlfriend, and I know Lawrence well, which made access easy...’ That’s the self-deprecating way of putting it. More realistically, he may well have had enough after the Lawrence film ended up taking eight years to make. There were scenes right up to 2011 in there – Lawrence’s spot on Domino Radio, and the development of the artwork for the forthcoming On the Hot Dog Streets (almost inevitably, ‘I’ve changed it since’). Lawrence said he might like to try acting in a film after this, and Paul said, laughing, ‘I’m not directing it!’ The Dolly Mixture film, Take Three Girls, was presumably a walk in the park in comparison. More conventional in that it did opt for the talking head format, with separate interviews with all three members intercut, it had source material on its side. Little video footage of Felt exists, but Dolly Mixture were on TV (doing ‘Baby, It’s You’), and someone ‘followed them around for two years’ with a 16mm camera, as luck would have it, so you even got to see them busking for their train fare home after a £25 gig fee got reduced to £5 for ‘sound, and lights’, at £10 each. Their story is an incredibly sweet one, of naivety backed up with hard work (200 gigs a year for several years); a hostile music press; a sympathetic Undertones (who took them on tour); a big box of Dolly Mixture sweets which made Debsey ill, because it was all she lived on for a while (not through choice, they had no money); a sympathetic-ish John Peel, an unsympatheic John Waters, meaning that their Peel session went un-repeated; getting fit with a military regime, starting (of course) with the outfits; getting on to Top of the Pops with Captain Sensible, the death knell of any kind of credibility. Oh, and fading out songs by playing progressively more quietly! ‘We hadn’t realised you can do that in the studio’, said Hester. It seemed a strange decision to play out on a song by someone else (this one), but overall, it was a beautiful evocation of the poppiest of all post-punk groups, and towards the end, there was even a hint that Debsey hasn’t given up on songwriting. Yes please to that!

Given the theme of under-recognised bands, it makes sense that money should be a concern in both films. Debsey’s comment that ‘I haven’t earned my living yet – I’d like to try that’, echoed through Lawrence’s experiences. He is surely right to stand firm on the issue of not re-forming Felt, though what this actually means was brought home in a casual, sad scene when he went to an instrument shop to sell an old guitar – it had ‘FELT’ stencilled behind the bridge and under the strings. He was clear, as he tends to be, about what wealth would mean for him, talking with disgust about rich people who use the tube to get around, slumming it for a sense of connection. ‘Fuck that, I don’t want to see anyone, ever’. He is Garbo on the dole, just as unable to grasp his own context as the biggest, most shielded star. Q & A compère Stuart Murdoch asked him about times in his career which had felt good, and he mentioned signing to EMI (actually EMIDISC, Bob Stanley’s imprint), and getting a new flat after being evicted from the old one for running up arrears and – against his own legend – not looking after it properly. This extreme un-idealism made me wonder about, y’know, artistic achievement – wasn’t listening back to ‘Primitive Painters’ a good moment, for example? He talked in the film about creativity, and produced a Scooby Doo script he wrote at the age of eight. But what is it, exactly, that Lawrence wants to express through his creativity? I’m not on board with all his post-Felt output by any means, but I do like Tearing up the Album Charts a whole lot, with its flights of pretty keyboard sounds, its gentle melodies alongside the immaculately weedy pub rock moments. The soft, precious, classic sound of Felt is misleading in a way – it appears to be far more literary than it is. They were always about pop product, more about The Velvet Underground than any of that band’s bookish leanings. And more about Warhol than The Velvet Underground (I had never realised that the cover of Felt’s The Splendour of Fear is stolen from the poster for Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, until I saw Lawrence thumbing through a poster book in this film). Go-Kart Mozart can sound bafflingly ugly, but they are not vulgar, because they are out there on their own, copying no-one, waiting for all seven billion of us to come around to their marred aesthetic.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

As also my Monsters, both wet and dry

[More from the second book down, a footnote from the essay ‘On Will-Making’. It is attributed to the Tatler, vol. iv. No. 216.]

The Will of a Virtuoso.
     I, Nicholas Gimcrack, being in sound Health of Mind, but in great Weakness of Body, do by my Last Will and Testament bequeath my worldly Goods and Chattels in Manner following:–
    Imprimis, To my dear Wife,
        One Box of Butterflies,
        One Drawer of Shells,
        A Female Skeleton,
        A Dried Cockatrice.
    Item, To my Daughter Elizabeth,
        My Receipt for preserving dead Caterpillars,
        As also my Preparations of Winter May-Dew, and Embrio Pickle.
    Item, to my little Daughter Fanny,
        Three Crocodiles’ Eggs.
        And upon the Birth of her first Child, if she marries with her Mother’s Consent,
        The Nest of a Humming Bird.
    Item, To my eldest Brother, as an acknowledgement for the Lands he has vested in my Son Charles, I bequeath
        My last Year’s Collection of Grasshoppers.
    Item, To his Daughter Susanna, being his only Child, I bequeath my English Weeds pasted on Royal Paper,
        With my large Folio of Indian Cabbage.
    Having fully provided for my Nephew Isaac, by making over to him some years since
        A horned Scarabæus,
        The Skin of a Rattle-Snake, and
        The Mummy of an Egyptian King,
I make no further Provision for him in this my Will.
    My eldest Son John having spoken disrespectfully of his little Sister, whom I keep by me in Spirits of Wine, and in many other Instances behaved himself undutifully towards me, I do disinherit, and wholly cut off from any Part of this my Personal Estate, by giving him a single Cockle-Shell.
    To my Second Son Charles, I give and bequeath all my Flowers, Plants, Minerals, Mosses, Shells, Pebbles, Fossils, Beetles, Butterflies, Caterpillars, Grasshoppers, and Vermin, not above specified: As also my Monsters, both wet and dry, making the said Charles whole and sole Executor of this my Last Will and Testament, he paying or causing to be paid the aforesaid Legacies within the Space of Six Months after my Decease. And I do hereby revoke all other Wills whatsoever by me formerly made.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Kindle 3: Review

I keep reading books and not writing about them. Which isn’t really the idea, is it? They tend to be ebooks, so maybe it’s the fact that there are many unread books waiting behind the one in hand which is distracting, like so much online activity. I don’t want to moan about that too much, because there are great books I’ve come across that I probably wouldn’t have read on paper – Terry Castle’s The Professor (still hardback only: big, expensive), and recently Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, which points in all sorts of unusual directions, as well as plenty of cannonical ones in interesting ways. I regret not reading Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles on paper, because it is so good, and I regret trying out Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s The Greenhouse and Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies electronically because they are not good enough. Which is not fair, probably. It is great having a library’s worth of free classics seconds away at any time (I’ve found that the Adelaide University Library site formats them pretty well – Gutenberg can be quite variable), and in theory it’s good to have the Kindle Store itself always on hand (leaving aside how clumsily Penguin do ebooks, and how much they overcharge) – but it discourages meandering, replacing it with impulse.

Above, anyway, are some second hand books I picked up yesterday. Very excited to be re-acquainted with Agaton Sax, about whom I had completely forgotten.
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Update from the second book down: ‘The eagerness of pursuit overcomes the satisfaction to result from the accomplishment’. That’s it, exactly.

Update two: Mrs Bookworld has a more balanced (and more positive) take.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Throwing Muses, Oran Mor, Glasgow, 7th November

This is where I came in. That 2003 show seems a strange one to have written about, in retrospect, given that it was one of those occasions when you couldn’t actually hear the songs because they were so loud. That also happened when I saw Throwing Muses for the first time, in 1992. The opening chords to ‘Furious’ were fine, then the drums piled in and it was more or less a white-out for the duration. But I still treasure the memory of that ear-blasting: the dingy Wulfrun Hall in Wolverhampton, as un-glamourous a venue as you’ll find, offering up something outside glamour, mysterious, cold, real. Unrest were the support, and they were good, although I never followed up that lead. Other great gigs I saw there featured Madder Rose, The Sundays (Harriet with a cold, natch), Cocteau Twins, My Life Story (so Pop as to excite sneers, but all the more enjoyable for that), Buzzcocks, Primal Scream, Belly (smoke machine on full blast for ‘Trust in Me’). Not the most rockin’ list, possibly, but no-one else I’ve seen has deliberately blurred their sound in quite that way, not with controlled distortion but with PA overload. ‘A very emotional sound’, reckoned Andy, maybe that’s it. They did it again last night, but not too much; you could mostly make out tunes, if not words (not a problem if you know them all already). And this time the blur worked in their favour, an hour and a half passed in the blink of an eye.

They kicked off with ‘Soul Soldier’, of all the amazing ways they had at their disposal. Plunging straight into the storm. Then ‘Shimmer’ (I think I may actually come around to University one of these days), and relatively early on, ‘Hate My Way’. Balanced by ‘Vicky’s Box’ towards the end of the set. At the time my mind was paragraphs, which had gone by this morning, but the gist was ‘What is this?’, because the things those songs do to my insides are not within the gift of any other music. Chris objected afterwards that people had punched the air to ‘Hate My Way’, which I agree seems an inappropriately celebratory reaction. What’s to celebrate – the slide away from coping, the skirting of a suicidal impulse? Is it that the air punchers identify with those feelings and are glad that someone has found a way to make them as solid as song? Are they applauding Kristin’s struggle, or goading her into bleeding so they don’t have to? I guess it can help to wrap your troubles in songs, send them away. Another possibility, given that these concerts celebrate 25 years of Throwing Muses, is nostalgia for the hurt of adolescence or early adulthood – a time when they at least felt something. I say ‘they’, I mean ‘we’. Though I didn’t punch the air, I just stood still and cried, let the song pull me apart so I could be new again. It would have been a bit of a downer if everyone had done that. Kristin, it should be said, seemed to enjoy the big reaction, giggling in surprise during the opening lines. ‘That song is much less sad when it sounds like I have a lot of friends,’ she mused. ‘It’s supposed to be a loser’s song.’
Heckler: I bet you weren’t laughing when you wrote it.
Kristin: I don’t remember writing it but I bet I wasn’t.
Another heckler asked ‘Where’s Tanya?’, which must happen all the time, but Kristin had the put-down off pat: ‘I sold her’.

The set galloped past – ‘Tar Kissers’ (which reminded me, not for the first time, of The Modern Lovers’ ‘Egyptian Reggae’), ‘Limbo’, ‘Garoux des Larmes’, ‘Say Goodbye’. For encores we got ‘Fish’, ‘Pearl’, ‘Devil’s Roof’, ‘Mania’. At the end Mike turned around and didn’t say anything, but looked blissfully happy. We were a contented crowd, we got our fill of manic pop thrills. And although this was a greatest hits set to go with the current Anthology compilation (for sale, weirdly, on USB sticks at the merch stall – no CDs), we know this isn’t just about nostalgia, because of what’s coming next: a monster 38-track album of new material. Good grief, it takes me long enough to get to grips with 12 new Kristin songs at a time. But of course we’ll follow you, Throwing Muses, no matter how far. It is great to have you back.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Viv Albertine, The Creeping Ivies, Ghosts of Progress and Hookers for Jesus, at Beat Generator Live!, Dundee, 4th November

The main thing which puzzled me in advance of this show was Viv’s image. Naked on the poster, save for a rose-patterned guitar, she stared out narrowly, daring you to think, ‘bloody hell, aren’t you from 1977? How on earth do you look like that?’ The video for ‘The False Heart’, too, shows a woman who has conceded nothing to time – but maybe something to tastefulness, as its graceful, glacial clarity supports a light, scratchy guitar sound that once meshed with altogether meatier rhythms. The white room, a victim of interior design... but I’m talking as though taste is a bad thing, and as though The Slits never had any. Whereas actually Cut is one of the most gloriously tasteful records ever made, drawing much of its appeal from the morphing of the band’s sound from falling-down-the-stairs punk (you need the Peel Sessions for that), to clipped, playful reggae. Not even their contemporary Vic Godard re-worked his songs so radically (well, maybe ‘Chain Smoking’), and it is certainly the kind of overhaul which could have gone horribly wrong. But somehow, with The Slits, tastefulness went deep. I should have remembered that when wondering if ‘The False Heart’ wasn’t a little too calm. But then, it’s been a long time.

Tastefulness has always been at the heart of Hookers for Jesus’ modus operandi, in much the same way that political correctness is at the heart of Ricky Gervais’. With the air of one not quite being able to keep a secret, Graeme told me to look out for something on his guitar, and I squinted and looked for stickers, saw nothing. Then they took to the stage and he picked it up... it has a fox’s tail! Oh my God! This is the most glamorous thing I have ever seen. It swayed from the end of the guitar as he moved, and indeed, he seemed to be moving the guitar more than usual in order to extract maximum slinkiness. Afterwards I asked him if fox hunting wasn’t a bit un-punk? ‘I am the fox’, he explained. A new version of ‘Drifting into Unthank’ was unveiled, taking it into operatic territory, with an extended intro of gloomy sound effects, and a choral preset adding gravitas / hilarity. Andy introduced them, once more, as the cabaret before the main bands, and it’s a role they fit perfectly. My favourite moment this time was their cover of The Meteors’ ‘My Daddy is a Vampire’, complete with echo effect and stupid / exhilarating vocalisations. Pure dumb fun.

Ghosts of Progress? They started up OK, with their quirky drums / guitar / singing by the same person setup (the drums operated by pedals attached to a board), but then the singing when it arrived was too Kurt Cobain, an immediate turn-off for me. Plus I thought we were in for a more angular slalom on the basis of the first (instrumental) song, and it didn’t quite materialise. The Creeping Ivies were really good though, turning in a set of short rock ’n’ roll songs, the singer in leopard print leggings which went on for miles, topped with a T-shirt reading ‘Bo Diddley is Jesus’; the drummer in a sharp suit, swinging his hips as he walloped two drums and a cymbal. They covered a Cramps song and appeared to have several big tunes of their own, I want to hear more.

Viv Albertine doesn’t believe in love, only in ‘what I can see and what I can touch’. Fortunately she believes in these plenty. She bought candles for the tables to give the room ambience, and after a brief explanation that she may have grown up a bit (which people don’t like punks to do), but probably not much, she kicked off with a one-chord, semi-chanted song setting out this agenda. Just her with that nimble, scratchy guitar, no longer pristine as on the YouTube clip, and if not actually falling down the stairs then certainly rolling down a slope. Free in the air, urgent, dynamic, unconstrained by tepid 4/4 concerns, because in the beginning there was rhythm, and it didn’t sound like a metronome. Over this the words came thick and fast, petulant, bold. A list of things which are real (wood, concrete) one of and things which aren’t (love, God). Almost child-like (I half expected Santa Claus to feature on one list or the other), but tough and adult at the same time. ‘Never Come’ was introduced with an explanation that her ex-boyfriend could never come, the stop-start structure of the song perhaps mimicking the lack of, um, fluidity. Most impressive of all was the final song, which Viv described as comprising the last four years of her life squashed into four minutes. It whirled around, punning and switching words and phrases, drawing a picture of domesticity gone wrong (courgette quiche was in there somewhere, I think), building to a frantic thump thump thump rhythm with ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘Fuck Fuck Fuck’ alternately sung staccato, really breathtaking, claustrophobic. It reminded me of Throwing Muses’ ‘Vicky’s Box’, with its bitter pun ‘Home is where the heart lies / The hard lies’, and the frantic build up, ‘Home is a rage / Feels like a cage’. There are precious few songs which can do this, and we really had no right to expect someone who was brilliant thirty years ago to be able to come back and be this fresh, this raw, this compressed, this bursting. An absolute triumph.

P.S. I missed out the best slogan of the evening – ‘Couples are creepy / Couples are creepy / Couples are creepy’. And in fact here it is (via Dylan Drummond):



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Throw money at Viv here, so she can get her album pressed (there is an EP to buy too): http://www.vivalbertine.com/

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Twelve quid for the lot, we pay fuck all*

You’ll be quite aware that this blog is barely fast enough to catch reflection by the shadow of its tail; anticipation ought to be well beyond its reach. So thanks to the prompts from Andy and Mark re: two upcoming Dundee events, yours to attend for £8 and £3.99 respectively – or £12 all in, just quote ‘La Terrasse’. This Friday Viv Albertine of The Slits comes to town (I feel that sentence should flash in gold or something), which is obviously massively exciting just for that, but also here is one of her solo songs which is really nice too. Hookers for Jesus make a rare outing in support, and they have yet to be anything but unmissable. The Saturday-but-one following that sees an extravaganza from the mighty Wildhouse, in which they lock horns with Edinburgh School for the Deaf, which should be Noisy and Irreverent, and pretty damn Velvet Underground. Loads of other bands I haven’t heard pitch in too. Names are a slight improvement on last time, but Gropetown is still fairly awful.

Full details are on Facebook:

Viv Albertine / The Creeping Ivies / Ghosts of Progress / Hookers for Jesus (4th November, Beat Generator Live!)

Pensioner / The Wildhouse / Kaddish / Cosmic Dead / Edinburgh School for the Deaf / Min Diesel / Bucky Rage / The Shit Hawks / Gropetown (12th November, Balcony Bar)

* Mock punk bravado, you will actually need to pay twelve quid.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

David Bellos – ‘Jacques Tati’

From the book I’m reading now:
I’ve numbers of old clothes in my dirty clothes basket – scenes, I mean, tumbled pell mell into my receptacle of a mind, and not extracted till form and colour are almost lost.
So it is with this biography, which I finished last week, and didn’t get around to writing about properly. Which is annoying, because it’s very good, even if the criticism levelled at it in this Amazon review does stand up. It would have been more graceful of Bellos to have left his academic standing to one side, than to constantly express surprise at the achievements of a man with
a literary and political culture no richer than that of an average accountant’s clerk (p. 270)
Certain questions are begged here: what does Bellos have against accountant’s clerks? and, how narrow must his conception of culture be, if he thinks Tati didn’t have any? Only an institutionalised academic could think this way, but then, his linking of Playtime to Situationism is intriguing, and convincing. The way he tells it, the writers behind this movement were far too serious in their insistence that the over-convenient surface of modern life must be disrupted in order to make it human again; Tati made this point too, but he also made it fun.

Here, in any case, is what I wrote last week, when the blues were still blue:
‘Laughing together is easier than laughing alone,’ Tati explained in his dictated memoirs. ‘The oldest spring of comedy is simply the pleasure that a group of people feel on being together.’ (p. 31)
Two of Tati’s films struck me in exactly this way, years apart: Les Vacances de M. Hulot, and Trafic, watched on TV, alone, were both big disappointments. Their lack of dialogue, or story, were alienating; the jokes so slow and deliberate as to seem sub-normal. But watched in company – Trafic amongst a full and well-disposed cinema audience – both were utterly transformed on a second viewing. Longer ago still, I remember Mum’s enthusiasm for Mon Oncle, shown on TV, and a joke which consisted simply of an immaculately dressed secretary in a tight skirt and high heels trotting along, coming to a kerb, and skipping lightly up on to it, without breaking her rhythm. Can you even call that a joke? And yet it stuck. Or maybe Mum laughing at it stuck. Several times Bellos makes the point that Tati’s comedy has something democratic about it: whereas Charlie Chaplin, he argues, attracts attention and wants you to laugh at how clever his character is, M. Hulot is so self-effacing he seems to diffuse attention, and you laugh at situations in the round, joining them, almost, as a character yourself. Which may be why it is so important to experience Jacques Tati’s films as part of a crowd: so they can be met somewhat on their own expansive terms.

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Footnote 1: this clip of Tati’s friend Borrah Minevitch is quite something.
Footnote 2: coincidence?


Sunday, October 09, 2011

Honoré de Balzac – ‘Eugénie Grandet’

In the country, people gradually cease to care about their appearance. (p. 72)
Saumur is the village where Eugénie Grandet lives, and has grown up, the daughter of a miserly vineyard owner and former cooper, who has accumulated a fortune by marrying well, investing, buying up land and crushing competition. His house is cold and dilapidated, because he won’t heat it except in the depths of winter, and he won’t pay for repairs to be done. As a special treat, on Eugénie’s birthday, he gets out his tools and mends a broken stair himself. Food is provided by the tenants on his estate, so he doesn’t have to pay for that, but he jealously rations sugar, which has to be bought in, and won’t allow wax candles in the house; instead they use candles made from tallow, a by-product of farming. But still, his wealth is known about, and so Eugénie attracts suitors. A grim game of attrition is played out between two families, the Cruchots and the des Grassins, each with an eligible son or nephew, who lay siege to the Grandets’ home, visiting regularly (together) for games of lotto, and bringing the occasional bouquet. Who will win her hand? It’s the countryside, there can’t possibly be a third option, surely? Enter Eugénie’s cousin, the elegant Charles, from Paris. He casts an astonished eye over the grotty interior of Grandet’s parlour, and
the lotto players immediately raised their noses to examine him, with as much curiosity as they would have shown if he had been a giraffe. (p. 73)
I’m not sure where I picked up the idea that Balzac was the French Dickens, but this is the only moment in Eugénie Grandet which invites a direct comparison. It is true that Balzac is drawing caricatures, but his humour is much more muted. He criticises society, as Dickens does, but without the zeal to change it. Dickens’ caricatures are funny because they are ridiculous, and who in their right mind would behave like that? Balzac’s – on the evidence of this novel – are serious because they are ridiculous, and they represent how people actually do behave.

Though it is a long time since I read it, it occurred to me that George Eliot’s Silas Marner is a better point of comparison, if you are looking for an English take on a similar situation. There, a miser lives alone with his gold, unloved, avaricious, until one day he finds he has been robbed. Simultaneously, a baby is left abandoned on his doorstep, and over the next twenty years Silas is rehabilitated by his love for this child, whom he brings up, becoming part of the community as he does so. An altogether softer, more redemptive tale. It never seems likely that Grandet will reform. He fails in every single moral duty that comes his way, and his monomania for gold is such that the right choices never even occur to him. Here are is thoughts as he wonders how best to tell Charles that his father – Grandet’s brother – has died a bankrupt:
‘You have lost your father!’ It was nothing to tell him that. Fathers usually die before their children. But: ‘You have no money at all!’ All the woes in the world were summed up in those words. (p. 115)
This is pity, of a kind, but worthless, because he has no more intention of bestowing money on the boy than he does affection. He sends him packing to the West Indies, at the lowest possible cost, and no more is heard of him for seven years (he turns out to be a ruthless businessman too, making a packet in the slave trade). Meanwhile, Eugénie’s twenties ebb away as she pines for him, her intense love prompted by the short time he spent at Saumur, when she stood up for him against her father’s brutality. She gives him her own store of gold coins, at which Grandet, when he finds out, confines her to her room on a diet of bread and water for months on end. It is only when it is pointed out to him that Eugénie, and not he, will inherit his wife’s wealth when she dies, that he relents. He is a tyrant, with not much else to him.

And Eugénie? Is she more than his opposite, the affection to his avarice? Her strong, silent love is a little hard to believe in. Even in the days before email, seven years without a single letter can’t have been a good sign. She seems to fall, too, as much for Charles’ refined clothes as for the man himself, which doesn’t seem consistent with her humble, un-grasping nature. But all the same – yes, she is more than her father’s opposite, she is also his daughter, and a member of a society with a tyrannical conception of rank and refinement. The saddest moment comes when she stops fighting:
Her unhappiness was concealed beneath a mask of politeness. (p. 240)

Monday, October 03, 2011

Eastern Promise: To Rococo Rot, The Pastels and Silje Nes at Platform, Glasgow, 1st October

With admirable hyperbole, Monorail’s last call for Eastern Promise invoked krautrock, laying down the challenge: ‘you wouldn't pass up a chance to see Can or Harmonia in 1974, would you?’ To Rococo Rot and Tarwater flew in from Berlin for the occasion, you see. It is something of a surprise that they – Alun Woodward and Easterhouse’s Platform venue – have managed to get the sponsorship to do this kind of thing. Isn’t the lack of funding what did for Triptych and Le Weekend? Serious times call for slashed arts funding, and all that. But maybe that’s too simplistic. Whatever the reasons, it is great to have an event like this back on the calendar. I must admit I’d thought we were in for a community hall experience, of the kind Tracer Trails put on, but no, Platform’s auditorium is pretty similar to the Tron or the Tolbooth – big, with theatre seats and a great sounding PA. Also Le Weekend-like was the splitting of performances between the main stage and the bar*, and the box office area was dotted with record stalls, which was a nice touch. Much vinyl and gimmickry (e.g. an Aidan Moffat bottle opener and, for no obvious reason, Jesus and Mary Chain T-shirts – which were rather tame, just saying the band’s name in big colourful letters. Actual Jesus and Mary Chain T-shirts, if you remember, used to say things like ‘Jesus Fuck’ on them).

Silje Nes kicked off proceedings. A thin blonde Norwegian in a black and white smock-like dress, she knelt in a circle of effects pedals, looping noises from a guitar and a small keyboard. After the opening instrumental she stood up to sing, making me think of a livelier Taken by Trees. She was excellent at conjuring up entire arrangements from the looping kit, hitting the guitar for rhythms and seemingly able to drop in chord changes at will (usually a limitation of looping musical phrases – as opposed to rhythmical ones – is that this can’t happen). There was a section in the penultimate song of really interesting noise, involving more kneeling and pedal work. ‘Interesting’ as in pulsating, MBV / Fennesz white-but-not-blank noise. Then the last song was pretty and quiet again. Warm reverb with icy delay.

‘We’re in the middle of recording an album,’ said Stephen Pastel, before correcting the collective consternation (‘2023? You’re kidding!’ is certainly what I was thinking) by saying that actually they are closer to the end. 2012 is the year to watch, apparently. The set would consist of songs from it, once they had limbered up with ‘Charlie’s Theme’: the long instrumental ‘Slowly Taking Place’, Katrina’s ‘Secret Music’ and ‘Ballad of Two Elms’, Stephen’s ‘The Wrong Light’ and the re-invented ‘Thru Your Heart’ (which, in my head at least, seeped into Teenage Fanclub’s song ‘Sweet Days Waiting’ last year). A recorded version would be a good thing, I think. Like Vic Godard going back to ‘Chain Smoking’ or ‘Stop that Girl’, some songs are worth a second look. There was nothing new in the set, but it sounded really wonderful, warm, together. Katrina’s drumming made me think of blaxploitation again (they have a brilliant song about ‘aeroplanes in the summertime’, which once did the same), by which I probably mean Superfly, slowed down to Isaac Hayes pace. ‘The Wrong Light’ sounded heftier and more alive than before, I almost forgot its debt to Galaxie 500’s ‘Temperature’s Rising’. It’s tricky – I wouldn’t say that their slow song turnover has been good for The Pastels, but the songs they do have are becoming gradually enriched. Maybe this is how music evolved before records, before Hollywood. We await, of course, eagerly, automatically yours.

I’ve never been To Rococo Rot’s before, automatically or otherwise. Except for once, when Katrina sang ‘Secret Music’ with them. I had half hoped that they might revisit this moment, being together on the same bill, but it didn’t happen. Aside from their Pastels collaborations, they always sounded too dry to me – not objectionably so, but enough to distance. So it was a nice surprise when they took to the stage and, unassumingly, with due care and diligence, tore the roof off the sucker. Stefan Schneider centre stage, swaying in tight circles, from the hips, to the feel of the bass guitar. Robert Lippok to the right, twisting his laptop stand to all angles as though to get feedback from an amp right, poring over the touchpad and his table of gadgets, including one that sparkled gold with hundreds of illuminated dots, visualised glitches. Ronald Lippok to the left at his kit, swinging his sticks down in great loose arcs. A group of fans gathered just in front of him, eschewing the theatre seats to dance the hour away. A voice behind me spectacularly failed to capture the mood: ‘Security should throw them out’, but at the end, taking bows to rapturous applause, Ronald mimed giving his heart to the dancers. I picked up a beautiful vinyl copy of Speculation from Monorail the following day (I love how Pet Shop Boys that title is), and will revel, I am sure, in finding out how wrong I was about this band.

* The bar wasn’t a very forgiving place to play – Animal Magic Tricks especially were not the kind of thing which works well above chatter, but Conquering Animal Sound were more fun, more slinky. It was just a pity I’d picked last week of all weeks to re-visit Björk’s Vespertine.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Slow down, honey

Sometimes, I am not very good at reading. I have all sorts of strategies for blaming this on things: the internet, ebooks, the half-painted bathroom, the attendant mess in the living room, work, coffee, S. (sorry, S.), TV. I don’t blame records, of course – it’s the other way around, books take the flak for not leaving enough time for listening. S. aside, you will have noticed that the common theme here is flitting, distraction, the scarcity of time. It makes me think again about slow blogging, whether it is just reactionary or whether there is a point there. It makes me think of Drugstore’s song ‘Accelerate’, and the drawled, dread-filled line ‘slow down, honey’; and this makes me think how brilliant it is that Drugstore are back!, back!!!, etc. Thanks to Unpopular for the alert, I don’t think I read about it anywhere else. I had a plan to read Walter Scott’s Waverley followed by Unpopular / Alistair’s Big Flame, because it uses Brogues’ Waverley steamer pen on the cover (I can’t find the link, but I think that’s right). Then Waverley began to seem like a chore... and I’m not saying it is, necessarily, but one week its digressions and meandering seemed quixotic and charming, the next infuriating. Roughly coinciding with the first appearance of poetry, which is a dead giveaway that my impatience is the key factor here, not the quality of the book.

The perfect antidote to all this nineteenth vs. twenty-first century fretting is the new LP by The A-Lords, pictured above. A collaboration between Directorsound and Plinth, it is less deliriously wonky than Directorsound’s amazing Two Years Today, but it is gentler, with bits of organ playing and even some singing. As it says on the back, ‘The birds play themselves’, and you can melt into it, into the outside air of Dorset, it’s as bucolic as you please. To its left, a pretty cover for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, 80p from a Debra shop.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Olivia Manning – ‘School for Love’

The other thing to say about wetness is that it is the flipside of tenderness and receptivity. Not the same thing exactly, but which side of the line any given behaviour falls is very subjective, and where art is concerned, I’m not sure I’m interested in strength which doesn’t include weakness, or weakness which doesn’t include strength. As it happens, School for Love walks this line: its protagonist, the teenage boy Felix, is pretty wet. He has reason to be, having recently been bereaved of a mother on whom he doted, and, after the interval of a few months, pushed out of the house of her friends to live with his maiden aunt in Jerusalem, where he doesn’t know a soul. It is 1945, the Second World War comes to an end during the novel’s action (which covers less than a year); this is a story of expatriates hanging around waiting to go home, clinging to identities from which they have become disconnected. The English, of course, excel at this. Here is Felix’s friend, Mrs Ellis, who, pregnant and widowed, is unlucky enough to find herself an anomaly:
‘Friends!’ she echoed and smiled acidly: ‘what makes you think they are friends? I came up with some introductions. Each person invited me to a party. I met the same people at each – then things came to a standstill. They all knew instinctively that I wasn’t one of them. The Government people here are graded and each knows what he can and can’t do inside his grade – or, rather, his wife does – and who he can invite to his home, and who’s going to invite him. It makes things easy for them. You see, they’re all people from a small world and things have to be made easy for them – so they can’t afford to admit strangers, anyway not strangers who probably won’t follow the rules. It complicates things too much.’ (p. 234)
Mrs Ellis and Felix are both lodgers with Miss Bohun, the maiden aunt, an extraordinary and oppressive character, who runs the local branch of a Christian sect always referred to as the ‘Ever-Readies’ (short for ‘The Ever-Ready Group of Wise Virgins’), and regards herself as something of a martyr to their cause. As befits a pillar of the community, she refuses to buy food on the black market, and feeds her tenants tiny portions of mashed beans, and aubergines as a substitute for sardines. She won’t allow any room to have more than one light bulb lit at the same time, and there is minimal heating through the winter. Though housing is at a premium because of the war, she keeps a room at the front of the house empty and immaculate, in preparation for the Second Coming. Throughout – and this was rather distracting – I heard her voice as Linda Snell’s from The Archers. Still, her consistent awfulness gives Mrs Ellis and Felix some common ground, and the scene in which they trade stories over drinks at the Innsbruck café has a wonderful feeling of release and is very funny. She does have some great lines:
‘I know what we’ll do,’ she said in the manner of someone promising a treat to children, ‘to-morrow we’ll all go together and pay the rent.’ (p. 111)
And, giving Felix the doctor’s address at a moment of crisis late on in the novel:
‘Here, I’ll write it down.’ She pulled open the writing-desk drawer and snatched up an envelope; it was a new one. ‘Not a new one – an old one will do.’ (p. 240)
Through all this, Felix makes slow progress. He watches Miss Bohun’s penny-pinching schemes and tenant-politics (she is always trying to evict people whilst appearing not to), and is swayed one way and another by the opinions of others, eventually arriving at nothing stronger than distrust. He is desperately needy, at first viewing Mrs Ellis with dumb adoration, moving on to an unequal friendship. He achieves an indifference to her near the end, transferring his affections to Miss Bohun’s Siamese cat, Faro (I groaned when I realised his name is probably a reference to Felix the Cat). He loves this cat so much he takes her with him when he finally gets a passage back to England. It would be cloying if he were meant to be taken seriously, but none of the book’s characters prompt that suspicion. Yet the situation is engaging; little of any dramatic consequence happens, but little by little, with more or less satire from the third person narrator, everybody is put in their place. As in this snippet of café chat from a gloomy Pole:
‘in my camp we had to eat only potatoes! Frost-bitten potatoes. Day after day, potatoes. Believe me, my friends, that is to suffer.’ Mrs Ellis shook her head slowly in sympathy: ‘And what did the Russians eat?’ she asked. ‘They also ate potatoes. There was a famine. But that was their affair. You cannot treat a Polish officer as if he were a Russian.’ (p. 179)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Since K Got Over Me

This last week has been Kristin Hersh Week over at Manic Pop Thrills (expect an interview there soon; I am not insanely jealous, I am not insanely jealous), and in Edinburgh generally, where she’s done a performance or book signing almost every day. She’s up amongst all the other wacky author portraits that line the inter-tent walkways of Charlotte Square – A. L. Kennedy with a plastic duck on her shoulder, Alasdair Gray gurning and in his element – and even if they have spelt both her names incorrectly under the photo, there’s definitely a feeling that Paradoxical Undressing has arrived, and with it, Kristin as author. Having a hastily-bought second copy signed after the book reading, I told her how much I liked the fact that she describes her songs as happy, towards the end of the book. ‘But I’ve always said that,’ she said, before suggesting that there is an element of sexism in the contrary assumption: that a female vocalist screaming can’t also be having fun. I pondered this for a while afterwards, but couldn’t get myself to agree – the woman on the first Muses record is practically bursting out of her skin, there’s no way she could be mistaken for someone having a good time.

All the same, I do like the idea that those early recordings can’t be pinpointed neatly on a happy / sad graph. At seventeen, this wouldn’t have occurred to me – I was blown away by them in much the same way that I was by Closer and California, and became convinced that all the best music was fraught, on the edge, and deeply unhappy. Which is seventeen for you, I suppose. At seventeen so many things appear solid and permanent and terrible which thirty-five sees are nothing but disappearing miasma; and seventeen can only find out by getting to thirty-five¹. The album actually loses out to its own demo by dropping the rollicking ‘Sinkhole’ – you can see why 4AD might not have wanted to include something that sounded so much like a hoedown, but the upshot is that the playful ‘Rabbit’s Dying’ is badly outflanked. And anyway, ‘Sinkhole’ is a clue, but it’s not about the numbers – the question is, can you look ‘Hate My Way’, ‘Vicky’s Box’, ‘Delicate Cutters’ in the eye? Are you still OK? I know you’re on the floor in a pool of your own tears, but do you feel strengthened in some way? It snapped you like a twig, this monster of a record, but the chances are it fixed something too. Kristin can be as annoyed as she likes that Black Francis got to be the fun screamer, but the Pixies never did that.

It was interesting talking to N. afterwards, in provocative mode, about what the reading was like for a non-fan. Too many cloying words like ‘goofy’ was the verdict, and also she once had a flatmate she disliked who played ‘Your Ghost’ to death on guitar. The whole thing was so needy and wet, the questions were all from ardent worshippers or the clinically depressed (there was one question about lithium and acupuncture which verged on intrusive). ‘If you didn’t grow up with the songs…’ ‘But we did’, was the best counter-argument I could manage at the time. A younger me would probably have muttered darkly and intensely about darkness and intensity, but now I feel more inclined to defend those songs in terms of vitality and, yes, thrills. The cut that kills the knife.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Edward McPherson – ‘Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat’

‘This book is a fan’s notes’, we are told. It aims to ‘avoid the pitfall of the Stone Face’ which has claimed other biographers, who ‘get bogged down in a sort of psychoanalytical quagmire – marking with relish each absent father that appears in his work, each instance of paternal abuse.’ Marion Meade appears to be the main target of this criticism – just look at the outrage her 1995 biography has attracted on Amazon. Whether or not Cut to the Chase deserves this kicking (I remember really enjoying it), Tempest in a Flat Hat runs in the opposite direction, away from scandal and psychological analysis. It has a light touch, and a firm grasp of what it is that makes Keaton great, but its refusal to contemplate any kind of dark side to his childhood is a little frustrating. The Three Keatons were a vaudeville act, consisting of Buster and his parents Joe and Myra, and he was ‘The Little Boy Who Couldn’t Be Damaged’. A high kick from Joe once left him unconscious for 18 hours, aged eight, so that wasn’t entirely true. But mostly, it seems to have been:
The Keatons were playing to a packed Syracuse house when Myra’s saxophone solo aroused the ire of a particularly vociferous critic. Joe immediately hoisted Buster by the handle under his overcoat and threw him – feet-first – at the heckler, breaking three of the offender’s ribs and smashing two of the adjacent man’s front teeth. Buster, naturally, was just fine.
Not the kind of thing which would amuse Social Services, but a good anecdote, nonetheless. And given the extent to which Keaton would draw on vaudeville slapstick for his films, it seems reasonable to conclude that McPherson has a point: ‘what boy doesn’t enjoy playing rough?’

The abuse angle isn’t purely a modern one. At the time, the Keatons worked hard to avoid the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children, who attended performances in New York to ensure that the law was being followed (no children under seven were allowed on stage; none under sixteen were to actually perform). They succeeded for an amazing nine years, beginning when Buster was five (rounded up to seven in publicity). Joe’s argument ‘that what Buster did didn’t really constitute a performance – he was merely a prop being thrown about’, seems calculated to inflame their ire. It wasn’t true – an instance is given of Buster knocking Joe unconscious in turn, with a broom handle. Then, in 1907, they got caught out, and were banned from performing in New York for two years. They could still work in other states, but it meant exile from the big time. After this, they relaxed in the off-season at Bluffton Actors’ Colony, formed by Joe and others in 1908, described as ‘vaudeville’s bucolic playground, a vibrant fellowship of the performative spirit that lasted the span of a summer, and it was one of Buster’s favourite places in the world’. Here something seemed to click, and Buster began to perpetrate elaborately witty practical jokes, such as throwing pots, pans, then himself and his siblings from the porch onto an unseen sand hill in order to alarm people passing by on the lake, or:
Buster’s pièce de résistance was Ed Gray’s hilltop outhouse. The facility was being strained to the limits of its capacity by uninvited visitors too prim to do their business in the woods and too rude to knock and ask permission. So Buster dismantled the wooden structure and attached spring hinges to each of the four walls. He split the roof down the middle, nailing the halves to opposite walls. He then buried a pipe under the outhouse. What appeared to be a clothesline emerged from one end of the pipe and stretched to Ed Gray’s kitchen window; underwear and shirts hung on the line. It was an inspired setup. When someone was bold enough to make himself at home in the outhouse, all Gray had to do was tug on the line and the roof and four walls fell outward, revealing the interloper, in all of his enthroned glory, to the town below.
This is typical of the kind of technical gag which was to populate his films, and it took place years before he got near a movie camera.

Once the films start, there are excellent pieces on many of them, but the book falls into the trap of recounting film-after-film, and the momentum becomes a bit staid. The ’20s are jam-packed, as you’d expect, the ’30s are awful (Buster drifts into alcoholism, a casualty of the sound era and of MGM’s production line), and the ’40s to the ’60s are skipped over much too quickly. The reasons are understandable, but I think McPherson takes this business of not getting bogged down too far – he accentuates the positive, which means writing mostly about the ’20s, and ignoring the decades during which Buster was bogged down. His attitude to this fall, from star to jobbing comic, was nearly always impressive. Aside from the bleak years of the mid ’30s, he always worked, as a gag writer for MGM, in short films (never a patch on his ’20s work, but often amusing), in television. He didn’t complain, he just got on with the here and now, which wasn’t common amongst faded silent stars: ‘he said talking to his peers – many of whom had never heard the Beatles – made him sad’. It’s a sad story – but not tragic, exactly. It reflects badly on the times, rather than on Buster, that his enormous talent was allowed to go to waste for so long. He didn’t die unappreciated – there was a resurgence of interest in his silent films from the ’50s onwards, which he allowed himself to say was ‘great, but it’s all thirty years too late’.

And what was all the fuss about? Here is an extended quote from the wonderfully enthusiastic chapter on Sherlock, Jr., which says it all:
Most aspects of the film could support a chapter of their own: the Chinese-box structure (Buster has wrapped a movie within a dream within a movie), the mixed bag of camera and stage tricks, the seductive, uneasy tilt-a-whirl of movement. Sherlock, Jr. is a true masterpiece, which again, for all my protesting, has to be seen to be believed. I have never watched it – including the time at a hip downtown Manhattan theater – without hearing someone gasp. It is that kind of movie. (Those who have seen it before are marked by their erratic murmurs – to them are left quieter idiosyncratic pleasures. Like the odd way Ward Crane buffs the tops of his shoes by rubbing them against the back of his calves before entering the girl’s house – the sort of strange, authentic, and inexplicably coalescing detail that reaffirms your suspicion that you’re in the presence of workaday greatness.) Take, as another instance of offhand merit, Keaton and McGuire’s sheepish courting. Sitting in a loveseat, each makes aborted feints for the other’s hand; when Kathryn suddenly slaps her palm down on the bench, Buster grabs it with equal ferocity – they both jump, the look on their faces priceless: they are at heart determined to hold hands and terrified by that determination. It is a twelve-second primer on romance, how it is wonderful, stilted, and arrives in fearful bursts. Like the very first title says, Sherlock, Jr. is a story about being able to do two things at once: move and entertain, dream and wake, negotiate between our real and our better selves – how we are all, in the end, projectionists and detectives. That art inflects life and vice versa is not a new statement, but a celebration of that fact perhaps bears repeating. Sherlock, Jr. is a testament to the imaginative impulse, the creative wish – the amount of ourselves that we put into the movies, and what the movies give back to us. For when the lights come up and we’re shoved rudely back into our misfit selves, we find we’re a little better off. Our ghostly flights sustain us. And then it’s time to kiss the girl.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

One more song and it’s over

In an interview once, Robert Forster answered the question ‘Which living person do you most admire?’ by saying ‘I am fond of Peter Falk’. I love that answer, mostly because I, in turn, am fond of Robert Forster. Although I’ve never seen an episode of Columbo all the way through, I do remember enjoying his performance in Wings of Desire, which is what I thought about when he died recently. I watched it again at the weekend. He plays himself, kind of – people are always pointing him out, ‘Look, there’s Columbo!’ – but he is also a fallen angel, and occasionally speaks to other angels whom no-one else can see. In the film, angels are all around, listening in to the private thoughts of Berlin’s citizens, trying to comfort them in times of distress (though literally imperceptible, they can somehow connect emotionally), but also comparing notes about the more unusual things they think. Near the end Bruno Ganz’s character Damiel, another fallen angel, wanders into a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds gig. They’re playing ‘The Carny’. Damiel is trying to find the woman for whom he has given up his angelhood, who is there too, in the crowd. His friend Cassiel stands onstage next to Nick, unseen. In the pause between songs, this is what he alone can hear:
One more song and it’s over. But I’m not going to tell you about a girl, I’m not going to tell you about a girl.
Cut from black and white to colour, Cassiel becomes invisible, and...
Ah wanna tell ya ’bout a girl
Staccato piano and bunched up, tense drums plunge us into ‘From Her To Eternity’, the rawest of Cave’s many absolute classic masterpieces. Blixa looks like death, there are chandeliers. It’s a breathtaking moment.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cynthia Ozick – ‘Foreign Bodies’

Paris in the 1950s. An American family settled in California, the father having made a fortune by marriage and then business. Marvin Nachtigall is practical, a scientist by education, and doesn’t hold with music, novels, or anything that doesn’t advance one in some solid, demonstrable way. He is intolerable both as husband and father, driving his wife to an asylum, and his two children to Paris, which as far as he is concerned are roughly equivalent. Because Paris in the ’50s, as everyone knows, was not so much a city as a playground for American rich kids who wanted to forget about the hard work that earned their money and indulge their artistic side. Julian, the son, has this chat-up line, ‘So which one are you, Gertrude or Alice?’, and at first inspires the contempt of Lili, who will soon become his wife:
Paris was infested with these imitation baby Sartres and Gides sitting in cafés over their inky manuscripts, an apéritif placed just so at the nearest knuckle to authenticate the parody (p. 101)
Just like The Magnetic Fields’ ‘I Don’t Want to Get Over You’ – ‘I could dress in black and read Camus / Smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth’. It’s a cliché, as both song and novel know, and the problem with the novel is that it coasts along on this cliché, describing but never escaping it.

In The Guardian recently, Ozick was candid about the inspiration for Leo Coopersmith, the composer and ex-husband of Marvin’s sister Bea. ‘“Yes, it’s a snow job,” she says. “Bullshit. It’s just a transposition of one kind of passion to another.”’ Some kind of false modesty double bluff, perhaps? But it turns out to be entirely accurate. There is some mighty clunky imagery, for a start – a grand piano left by Leo in Bea’s New York apartment after their brief marriage, which takes up practically all of the living room, for twenty years. Bea herself can’t play, has no musical aptitude at all, but has the piano tuned regularly, keeps it polished. She never touches the keyboard. Her niece, Iris, staying with her overnight before going on to Julian in Paris, hits a single key, causing consternation and reverberations for her aunt. She, in turn, hits a larger selection of notes on Leo’s current piano, improbably opening his ears:
How had she done it, how exactly had those polyphonic antiphons, if that’s what they were, come into being, and from no recognizable system – what could you call that sound? When he tried to imagine it (he was always trying), it was scarcely stable, it was a fleeting exultation, or else a hideous hollow, like an anus, or a growly scrabbling of animal claws. (p. 179)
I don’t think there is a musical version of the Bad Sex in Fiction award, but if there were, Foreign Bodies would do pretty well. The bit about the ‘tender secret testicles that lurked like darkened planets between his legs’ might win both. The resulting symphony, The Nightingale’s Thorn, is in B minor, causing Bea to wonder, ‘Bea minor, is that what he meant?’ I am not making this up.

Of course, I could be missing the point*. Foreign Bodies is a re-imagining of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, which I haven’t read. Bea is Marvin’s ambassador in the sense that she is supposed to bring Julian and Iris home from Paris. She is always hiding bits of information in both directions, which sounds like good ambassadorial behaviour – sometimes to keep the peace, and sometimes in accordance with her own agenda. It isn’t much of an agenda really – she wants to keep Marvin at a distance (just as Julian and Iris do), and she wants some kind of re-acquaintance with Leo, though she doesn’t want him back. The grand piano finally gone from her apartment, and his symphony on her table (she can’t read it, of course), she ends the novel in a better position, psychologically speaking, than she started out with. But it isn’t nearly enough.

____________________

* From the Guardian piece, here is the point I missed: ‘Foreign Bodies is, Ozick has said, a sort of inversion of James’s The Ambassadors, in which Americans in Paris are charmed and restored by the European sensibility. In Ozick’s telling, they encounter a postwar city of dark, grim truths.’

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Terry Castle – ‘The Professor and Other Writings’

I came to this via a review in n+1 magazine, which first published some of the chapters which make up Elif Batuman’s The Possessed. Grouped together with a couple of populist manifestos defending the humanities disciplines and their currently imperilled funding, it was recommended as a ‘less abstract’ take on the same subject, demonstrating ‘in intimate terms why one studies in the humanities, what it feels like to do so, and how doing so changes the way one feels.’ That sounded a lot like The Possessed itself (is academic memoir a new genre?), but actually there are more differences than similarities. Castle, in her fifties, is looking back from a later stage in her career than the thirty-something Batuman; the focus is much more on the personal, with academia a necessary backdrop (lesbian social trends join it here); Castle is a more nervy presence, Batuman’s languor is replaced with an urgency which is less charming, but – here’s the trade off – more vital. I was pleased to note that she is a fan of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, but when her boom box fails to work during a long drive home to San Diego for Christmas, she doesn’t react well to not being able to play it (or any of her other CDs). Bev, her ex, is driving, and all she has are...
Tapes! I glared at her and peered into the shoebox of dusty old cassettes in the trunk. Could I survive for ten hours solely on Sylvester, the soundtrack from The Crying Game, and The Greatest Hits of Etta James? Now, “Down in the Basement” is a major song and Etta one of the supreme live performers. Once, at a surreal outdoor concert at the Paul Masson Winery, marooned among pre-tech-stock-crash Silicon Valley yuppies dutifully sipping chardonnay, I watched her do the plumpest, most lascivious cakewalk imaginable. But I could hardly live on her for the rest of the day. I started squawking like an infuriated baby vulture.
Whilst is undeniably decent of Bev to have undertaken this long drive, my sympathy here is with Terry, and the lost oasis of ten hours spent listening to music. The list of silenced CDs is interesting, but too long to quote in full (sample: ‘…the Ramones, Astor Piazzola, Ethel Merman’s Disco Album, Magnetic Fields, Flagstad and Svanholm in Die Walkurie, Lord Kitchener and the Calypso All-Stars…’).

The first half of the book contains essays on seemingly unconnected topics (World War I, Art Pepper, Sicily, Susan Sontag, shelter magazines, Georgia O’Keeffe vs. Agnes Martin), but which are also autobiographical, and leave the reader with a pretty good idea of how Castle spent her early life, and how she lives now. Her family was messed up enough to give her something to run from, into the arms of academia, and ultimately Blakey, whom she married in the brief window allowed by California state law (how crazy is that?). The essays get progressively less edgy, at least after the Sontag one, and my enthusiasm began to wane a little; I wondered whether their chattiness wasn’t overdone (e.g. referring to Wikipedia as ‘the Wikster’, or the bit about rubber stamp collecting), and whether I was after all going to follow up reading The Professor with Art Pepper’s Straight Life, Castle’s favourite book, which had certainly been the plan during the chapter about him, ‘My Heroin Christmas’.

This tailing off – or settling down – strikes me now as deliberate: Castle wants to ease the reader gently into the long final chapter, ‘The Professor’, a reminiscence covering what has hitherto been skirted around, an episode which was plainly the most painful part of her early life, notwithstanding the broken home; the unsettling migrations between England and the States after the parental break-up; the suicide of her half-brother, the violent, unknowable Jeff; the loneliness of bookish teenage years (she is merciless on her younger self’s delusion that hard work would make her popular). It’s a love affair, and it is messy. It is with one of two gay professors at the college Castle attends to do her Ph.D. on eighteenth century literature, one of whom, Jo, is openly gay, unmysterious, approachable, involved in local women’s groups. The other – unnamed here, always ‘the Professor’ – hides her sexual orientation, and has no truck with the politicisation of sexuality. Which has its appeal: ‘The Closet, all of a sudden, turned out to be fantastically exciting – far more so in fact than Destroying the Patriarchy’. The trouble is, the relationship is too exciting: the disparity in age, confidence and social position between the two women mean that the one with the power would have needed to secede it – would need to be as kindly as Jo – to give them any chance of staying together.
The Professor had problems of her own, it would turn out – manifest above all in a steely, seemingly insatiable appetite for emotional control. Combined with my own equally insatiable desire – to be taken care of – the result was near-instant psychic mayhem. The Professor became cruel; I succumbed to a kind of Sapphic Stockholm syndrome.
So Terry quickly becomes a doormat, the Professor begins to take other lovers within weeks, and it is all hopelessly sad. I guess – though it’s been a long time – I recognise the feeling of being completely seized up and devoted, fighting against the influence which is all that seems to matter. How could you be so cruel? Is the wrong question. How do I get away? The one you’re too blind to see. This is Terry’s nadir:
once or twice I couldn’t help it: I blurted out that I felt bad when the Professor slept with Molly. My own failing, of course, but yes, okay – I do feel a tiny bit hurt…. Such dazed admissions typically prompted indignation in her, followed by self-recrimination on my part. (I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m so so sorry, etc., etc.)
Poor, poor thing. But what an incredible book.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Welcome to Japanese New Music Festival!

It is possible that the picture in this post isn’t typical of how tidy my flat usually is. That may even be true of the table itself, actually. But I do tidy up sometimes, and today I’ve been going through some minidiscs, with the idea that if I put the recordings on a hard drive I’ll claw back half a drawer of storage. The recordings I’ve copied today all come from a 2003 music / film event at Dundee Contemporary Arts, and whilst I was expecting to – and did – enjoy Ira Cohen’s gonzo poetry rant (it turns out he died recently, sad to hear that), I’d forgotten all about Ruins’ set, which began with some sample based songs about a zipper, a toothbrush, a camera, and a wine cork. After that they did some longer songs which were also great, if less obviously conceptual. Here is the first third of the set – I’ve never heard anything else like it.

Ruins at Kill Your Timid Notion, DCA, Dundee, 19th Oct 2003 by steamboatbill

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Deaf, Dumb, Blind

Eighteen months ago, I got excited about the debut gig by Hookers for Jesus, a duo consisting of my friends Andy and Graeme, who used to be in the Candy Store Prophets. Beleaguered by a cold night, an unhelpful venue and a paper-thin crowd, they pulled out an urgent set which had S. and I slack-jawed with amusement. I mean amazement. No, I mean both. Things were slightly out of control, and something mighty fine emerged as a result. I didn’t see them play again until this February, at a Dylan tribute night, and they confounded me again. Thoroughly in control this time, and granted a packed house, they turned in a ramshackle burlesque of Dylan’s earlier, folk-singer style (‘I’m a poet / Don’t you know it / And the wind / You can blow it’), and a ridiculously assured full text version of ‘Hurricane’. About as ambitious a cover as could be attempted, I’d have thought, in terms of maintaining momentum through the corridors of its (potentially) interminable verses. They return to a Dundee stage this Thursday, I can’t wait to be surprised by them again.

Edinburgh School for the Deaf are the headliners. They put in an anarchic rumble of a set in support of Vic Godard a few months ago, spilling backwards off the stage with their wireless guitars like itchy zombies, and making a pop-inflected scuzz racket which seemed a million miles from their more earnest parent band, Saint Jude’s Infirmary. It will be good to see them again too.

All this and more at Dexter’s, Dundee, Thursday 30th June. Doors 7.30, tickets here or from Groucho’s. Hookers For Jesus’ full Dylan Uncovered set is below, and there is also an interview over at Manic Pop Thrills, along with a review of Edinburgh School for the Deaf’s new album.

Hookers for Jesus at Dylan Uncovered by steamboatbill

Friday, June 24, 2011

Tenniscoats, Muscles of Joy & Tangles, Garnethill Multicultural Centre, Glasgow, 18th June

Six days is far too long to have left it, but here are some things I remember about last Saturday’s gig by the Tenniscoats.
  • True to the (Tracer) Trail, it wasn’t in a conventional venue, but a community hall with chairs stacked for if you wanted to use them, and a wooden floor if not.
  • Brogues nearly couldn’t make it, but then J. insisted (phew!)
  • Tangles, on first, was a chap dressed exactly like the rockabilly one out of the Sexual Objects, making strung out Robin Guthrie-isms from a guitar and a loop pedal. Brogues winced and said ‘King Crimson’, but I thought he was very good.
  • A.’s new-ish fella W., whom I hadn’t met before, was taken aback by Muscles of Joy, asking ‘you liked them?’ Chris agreed, conceding good rhythm but accusing the one on the left of drowning out everybody else’s good bits.
  • There was, for the first time, a male member in Muscles of Joy. Ahem.
  • High up on the wall opposite the stage area was a shelf of large Chinese dragon heads. To the right were the Tracer Trails banner, and a board filled with Chinese writing.
  • There were no stage lights, hence the lack of photos. There was a stage, but Tenniscoats were the only ones to use it, and then only to sit on the edge before wandering forward.
  • Because they are wandering minstrels, after all.
  • They played with no amplification, just the two of them, opening with ‘Mou Mou Rainbow’ and ‘Baibaba Bimba’.
  • Ueno played a Spanish guitar, of which I approved, because I have one of them. He shook it and raised it and moved to the left and right to get tremolo and stereo panning effects, except that they weren’t effects at all, but real.
  • Saya stood and sang, with a smile and a slight forward movement. This, somehow, was love.
  • She sang ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’ from an exercise book.
  • She introduced ‘Tamashi’, from new album Tokinouta, in halting English, as being ‘about spirit’. Ueno sang too for this one, it is my favourite song at the moment.
  • They faded out the last song, slowly reducing the volume of the singing and the guitar playing, to a whisper and a caress of the strings. It was hard to tell when the song finished and silence began. Maybe it is still playing somewhere, maybe it always will be.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Simon Reynolds – ‘Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past’

Excuse me for giving away the ending, but here is Retromania’s final sentence:
I still believe the future is out there.
It jars because it is at odds with virtually everything else in this book, which takes on the vexed question of what is happening to what used to be called pop music, in an age when anyone who wants to can access practically all of it (if ‘it’ is the recordings), and anyone who doesn’t can ignore it completely. Tom Ewing wrote in a Guardian piece this week, ‘With pop I think the hidden article of faith is that music can take over public space, stamp itself on a moment. If a pop single can't do this, then what is it?’, and Reynolds would be unlikely to argue. He provides many examples of the way in which pop’s past has been recycled in the last decade, but readily admits that there has been no surge forward; nothing, content-wise, to challenge the iconography of the technology through which it is distributed:
Napster Soulseek Limewire Gnutella iPod YouTube Last.fm Pandora MySpace Spotify … these super-brands took the place of super-bands such as Beatles Stones Who Dylan Zeppelin Bowie Sex Pistols Guns N’Roses Nirvana …
Note the decade-proportions there: ’60s – 4, ’70s – 3, ’80s and ’90s – 1 each. Reynolds has written about this before, arguing that fragmentation is responsible both for the disappearance of these super-bands, and the creation of a lot of great music, increasingly consumed by niche audiences. In the book, he puts in a stirring section on his beloved hauntology (littered with bad puns – ‘Seance Fiction’, ‘The Groove Robbers’), which is the closest he can find to an era-defining genre, but admits finally,
in lots of ways figures like Ghost Box, Oneohtrix Point Never et al., are postproduction artists too, rummaging through the flea market of history and piecing together the audio equivalent of a junk-art installation.
Hauntology sounds like the dying gasp of pop, even as it fascinates.

Though it trips up a little trying to see a vital future in a backward-looking present, Retromania spends most of its time charting how we got to this point. Divided into the sections ‘Now’, ‘Then’ and ‘Tomorrow’, it kicks off with a visit to the ghastly-sounding British Music Experience museum (predictably light on the ’90s / ’00s), and ponders the appropriation of the word ‘curate’, which has now made it all the way from ATP to the Oxford Dictionary of English* (‘select to perform at (a music festival)’; a decade ago, it would have applied only to exhibitions). How does all this gentrification sit, he wonders, with Julie Burchill’s 1980 snarl, ‘anything that can fit into ROCK’S RICH TAPESTRY is dead at heart’? But it turns out that old punks aren’t immune from curation, and his next stop is Mick Jones’ Rock ’n’ Roll Public Library, a ‘cosy clutter of souvenirs and keepsakes, the detritus of a life spent rock and rolling’. It sounds, simultaneously, as though it might be worth a visit, and as though it should not be there at all.

Just as he is detached enough to encompass Burchill and Jones without getting polemical, Reynolds’ comments on the way the web changes the behaviour of music fans are well balanced about some fairly unbalanced tendencies. He coins a word, ‘franticity’, which is a ‘brittle mood of impatient fixation’, in the context of the internet and its unencompassable content. All the music’s there, but when are you going to find the time to listen to it? ‘I think my record was to have thirty simultaneous downloads streaming into my computer at once’, he admits. ‘Like the proverbial kid in the candy shop, […] I got lost’. It is interesting to compare this to the later section on Northern Soul, of which he is refreshingly un-enamoured: ‘Motown itself – yeah, fabulous … But fetishising the sub-Motown wannabes?’ There is certainly something frantic in the movement’s quest ‘for new old songs’, and the way DJs would disguise their rarest records by covering the labels (with other, misleading ones) in order to stop others identifying them, either to play in their own DJ sets, or to devalue by re-pressing.

There is a surprising comparison between Northern Soul fans and Grateful Dead fans, both being ‘style tribes whose members travelled to particular clubs or one-off events’, with a ‘fixation on a particular moment in the sixties’. Retro is shown to have sprung up in many places at once in music, and in other areas of culture over a longer period (the foundation of the National Trust in 1894, and English Heritage in 1983). Fashion’s interest in retro and vintage is noted, along with an accusation of change without progress. But then what does progress mean?
There is an argument that the linear model of progress is an ideological figment, something that should never have been transposed from science and technology, where it does apply, onto culture.
Maybe people don’t want culture to progress ‘in the face of capitalism’s reckless and wrecking radicalism’. This fits with the ’80s indie scene in general (and with Lawrence-from-Felt’s career path in particular), described here as
a retreating edge, looking to the sixties and rejecting synthesizers and sequencers for the traditional line-up of guitar–bass–drums.
It is easy to forget that.

____________________

* Turns out I actually mean the New Oxford American Dictionary, which had somehow crept back to ‘default’ on my Kindle. The British one doesn’t have this definition.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Tchotchke Table 2

Following up on last year’s post, here is what my table looks like at the moment. Mostly this is stuff accumulated this year, going back to last December. Quite a bit of back-filling going on, really I haven’t even dipped a toe in 2011 yet, which is pretty terrible. Or is it? My big ‘discovery’ lately has been Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, via Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles, which I got non-tangibly from Emusic, but related to that is the Boyd production, Nico’s Desertshore, at the bottom. Next door, illegibly, is Panda Su’s I Begin EP, which I like a lot, having found its predecessor Sticks and Bricks a little humourless compared to their gigs. I Begin isn’t stuffed with jokes, but it has a lovely light feel to it, and captures their charm much more effectively.

Top right is a Kate Bush single my sister didn’t want, and her new Director’s Cut album, the only thing I have managed to buy from HMV this year (suggestion: make that temporary Scottish indie section you did last year permanent), about which I was deeply ambivalent to begin with, and which I’d have avoided entirely had I seen the new ‘Deeper Understanding’ video first. But I love the new versions of ‘This Woman’s Work’ and ‘Moments of Pleasure’, almost as much as I’ve loved going back to The Sensual World, thoughtfully included in this edition, along with The Red Shoes. Obviously Kate has steered clear of re-interpreting the latter’s ‘Big Stripey Lie’, in the light of Planet Sunflower’s definitive reading. Beneath the single is a book of William Henry Fox Talbot’s photographs, bought mostly because I remember my grandfather taking me to a museum about him sometime in the ’80s. I don’t remember very much, just this enigmatic image and the name, but it is a beautiful book. Travel down and to the left as far as you can go to find The Orchids’ The Lost Star, which is quite brilliant, and well worth the trip.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Elif Batuman – ‘The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them’

The version of War and Peace I read a couple of years ago wasn’t the one I’d grown up staring at on my mother’s book shelves. That one came in two volumes, with black spines, and their ‘WAR AND PEACE 1’ and ‘WAR AND PEACE 2’ seem iconic to me now. The edition of ‘The Cossacks’ in the picture to the left is in the same format, and Anna Karenin turned out, when it arrived in the post this week, to be a ’70s TV tie-in. There is a soft focus photo on the front of a woman in furs standing next to a locomotive wheel which is as tall as she is (it missed her that time, anyway). This was pretty disappointing, I wanted the black expanse and the small, white lettering of the non-TV version. The text is the same, Rosemary Edmonds’ 1954 translation, and that is probably the main thing. I want to get away from the too-modern feel of Anthony Briggs’ War and Peace (very readable and energetic though it was), and what I read online of the modern Pevear / Volokhonsky Anna Karenina doesn’t sound promising.

Elif Batuman wrote a really great article for the London Review of Books a while back, about something I’d never heard of (but which seemed to explain a lot) which she calls American programme fiction. She said something which chimed with an idea I’m not sure I’ve really expressed on this blog, but which has always lurked in the background: that nothing is achieved by striving for it. You have to strive for something else, and the thing you didn’t know you wanted will come along en passant, as if by magic or by accident. Why do I write about all these books? Partly to keep a record, and to be able to compare new reads to books whose contents I would otherwise have mostly forgotten. And partly in the hope that something unexpected will cohere. In the article, Batuman says:
The durability and magic of the novel form lies in the fact that, having gained a certain level of currency, the latest novel is immediately absorbed into the field of pre-existing literature, and becomes the thing the next novel has to be written against.
Her ideal is for fiction to ‘capture real life by describing the disjuncture between pre-existing literature and the historical present’. Culture talks to itself, reacts against itself, it is constantly on the move.

The Possessed brings together previously published articles about being an academic studying Russian (and sometimes Uzbek) literature. It reads like a single work though, largely due to the three long ‘Summer in Samarkand’ sections, in which Elif and boyfriend Eric spend the summer in Uzbekistan, she to study the Uzbek language and what has been designated (which turns out to be not so straightforward) its national literature. They are at the mercy of their host, Gulya, who is both over-protective and cynical – late on in the stay the couple realise that the ant-infested vat of marmalade they get to use for their toast is used only by them: there is another kitchen which the family uses, and which has a sealed vat of marmalade. Incidental details of this sort are mixed in with academic activity – reading books, in other words, slots into life here much as it actually does. It’s a very engaging approach, and useful in the opportunities it gives for parallels. For instance, the character Stavrogin from Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed (AKA Demons AKA The Devils) is ‘unspeakably elegant, irreproachably dressed, eerily handsome’ (p. 256) – everyone falls in love with him, he couldn’t care less and his whole circle ends up destroying itself in one way or another. This is neatly tied to a period of study under adherents of René Girard’s notion of ‘mimetic desire’, and to the similar effect that one of the students, Matej, has on Elif and the rest of the class. They can’t resist the stare. Via the study she works out why The Possessed makes more sense than its disordered emotional carnage would initially suggest, and via Matej she sees the effect this kind of charisma can have on a group. A combination of intent and accident gets her where she didn’t know she wanted to go.

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