Saturday, September 27, 2014

Throwing Muses and Tanya Donelly, Leeds Irish Centre, 18th September

The week before last, S. and I were on holiday in Cumbria. Not specifically to get away from referendum fever, but we weren’t tempted to reschedule when we realised that it was that week. To their credit, Throwing Muses went ahead with a gig in Glasgow in the midst of it all (if any art can transcend politics, it’s theirs, I suppose. Fuck Iraq, etc. On second thoughts, don’t fuck Iraq). We arranged postal votes, and wondered until the last minute how to use them. The choice: nationalism, or the Tories. The devil or the deep blue flag. I hate flags. And everyone hates the Tories, surely that goes without saying? The idea that nationalism could be about equality intrigued me; that it could be about breaking away from intolerance and the triumph of capital over ethics, art, and learning. Would it really have turned out that way? Probably not. Or, only if our new country could have afforded it. Still, it was sad to discover on Friday morning that Scotland didn’t even want to try. On Thursday, S. and I enjoyed some lovely English things: York’s Goji CafĂ©, and Leeds’ Roundhay Park, before going on to the gig. I wrote a review on Friday morning, published and then un-published it a few hours later, because it didn’t seem to chime with the day. But here it is again. And why not? The referendum was only one day; Throwing Muses are for life.


Of course I loved Belly too. They never did what the Muses did, but that wasn’t the point. They swooned and soared and let that huge voice of Tanya’s off the leash of backing vocals and occasional songs. It was her transformative contribution which made The Real Ramona such a great pop LP (witness the leap to electrifying 3-piece rock with her gone, on Red Heaven), and she brought the momentum of this to Belly’s two albums. Neither was perfect: Star is slightly garish, and King — which isn’t — doesn’t quite have the songs. But, often enough, they had this melting quality, between sex and dreams. Tanya’s soft, soft guitar, drugged up on reverb, acting (on Ramona) as a narcotic to the rolling smash of David’s cymbal-free drums, and the harsh harpsichord tone of Kristin’s guitar. In Belly, I suppose, there wasn’t enough harshness to provide that contrast, and in the solo stuff I heard, even the fun had begun to ebb. I gave up with the song ‘Goat Girl’, which is just as kooky and ill-considered as the title makes it sound. Commercial pressures, I guess. So the million-selling rabbit died away, and the cult tortoise continued being brilliant and frustrating (Purgatory / Paradise does my head in, but Crooked and Paradoxical Undressing are up there with Kristin’s best work).

After all these years, then, there stands Tanya, in this out-of-town, anti-glamour venue, with a Gibson SG, in a really great shirt. Black and white patterns, and sleeves in imitation leather, and I think a red band at the bottom. She explains that it was given to her by a local designer, and that it is cruelty-free. Her cellist looks familiar, and it clicks at some point that he is in The Magnetic Fields. There’s no drummer, but the sitting-down acoustic guitarist is somehow operating a tambourine, and there is an electric reverb guitarist to the left, who noodles too much but is otherwise fine. There are a few unfamiliar songs to begin with, which are reassuringly simple, direct, un-kooky. Tanya’s voice is so rich, I’d happily have listened to a whole set like this. ‘Sliding and Diving’ is the first song I recognise, and then she just goes flat out and spoils us. ‘Low Red Moon’ segues into ‘Dusted’ and back again, a reminder that she can do spine-chilling (if not quite the soul-freezing that is Kristin’s speciality), and then — oh my god — ‘Honeychain’. The bass part beautifully played on cello. And all that is solid melts into air. She gets two women from the audience up for ‘Not Too Soon’ as she doesn’t want to do the ‘cat calls’ alone (the ‘neeow-na-now-n-now / la la la la’ bit). It’s great. Tanya’s set alone was worth the journey.

Kristin, too, mentions the designer who has given them clothes. ‘People give me clothes all the time — I wonder what that says? But it’s usually people I know.’ Then Throwing Muses plunge into ‘Sunray Venus’, and half my doubts about Purgatory / Paradise evaporate on the spot. I close my eyes, and the sound becomes an environment; the actual world stops dead. Kristin’s guitar is, as on Ramona, harpsichord-like, harsh, brittle. But loud, breaking up, like you’d never imagine doing with that sound. I think of other Muses shows, and other guitar sounds: painful fuzz guitar assault, 1992 (for Red Heaven); clean and efficient, 1995 (for University); 2003 rubble (for Throwing Muses). She doesn’t vary the sound much within a show, which is very un-pop, but it helps take you to a zone, free of distractions. Likewise the way that it’s usually (apart from 1995) too loud for any purpose other than saturation, obliteration. The run of Purgatory / Paradise material (plus ‘Mississippi Kite’, thrillingly) locks on to its groove, and wipes the audience out. Buddhism is probably like this. I will try again with the record.

‘You Cage’ marks the return of Tanya, for guitar and backing vocals. She takes centre stage, Kristin on her right, Bernard on her left. ‘Red Shoes’ allows her some of that deliciously lazy guitar, and it’s glorious to hear. No noodling. Red becomes you. I become you. It’s basically a nostalgia show from this point, but for those of us who never saw the full Muses line-up, it’s like seeing Orange Juice or The Velvet Underground put back together. And not all nostalgia is equal. Tanya may not be Kristin, but the Muses were never the same after she left. The run of records from Throwing Muses (1986 version) to The Real Ramona are the peak of human endeavour, if you ask me, and worth any amount of revisiting and celebrating. ‘Say Goodbye’ goes deeper still into the rock / pop collision, and edges closer to that Buddhist groove. Kristin stands back from the stage lights for ‘Green’, which I can barely believe I’m hearing. The stupidly high notes defeat Tanya, but for the rest she’s in strong voice, and even if the moment matters most for what it represents, it sounds brilliant too. David’s drums — always the heart of a Muses show — crisp and marching. They get to bounce and slither to a great encore of ‘Shark’, and to rage at full tilt for ‘Pearl’. Pockets of the crowd are going nuts, pleasingly. And then it’s over, and who knows when it will happen again?

Some more fine photos of the gig, by Simon Godley.
Tanya Donelly’s Swan Song Series.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Gavin Extence — ‘The Universe versus Alex Woods’

In short, it turned out that I was a major beneficiary of the will — one of only two beneficiaries — and this gave me a ‘plausible motive’ for wanting Mr Peterson dead [...]. I tried to point out to the police that this motive was only plausible if I’d known about the will beforehand — otherwise it was not only implausible, but also violated causality in quite a major way — but I got the impression that they saw this as a weak defence. Luckily, my lawyer told me I didn’t have to prove that I didn’t know about the will; the police had to prove that I did.
          ‘How could they possibly prove that?’ I asked.
          My lawyer shrugged. ‘If you confess.’
          ‘I could confess to anything,’ I pointed out. ‘I could confess that my father’s the Pope. It wouldn’t make it true.’ (p. 403)
This is a sweet book which takes some hefty themes — epilepsy, euthanasia — and weaves them into a story of friendship against the odds. It starts with seventeen-year-old Alex arriving off the ferry at Dover, and being stopped by a passport official. He sits at the wheel of a car in a catatonic state, an urn containing Mr Peterson’s ashes on the passenger seat, and a big bag of weed in the glove compartment. The police, not unnaturally, detain him. The rest of the book is an explanation of how he got there. It’s not a literary novel: there’s no mucking around with chronology, sources or points of view, there is no ambiguity about what is supposed to have happened, and in times of stress characters tend to say ‘right now’ a bit too often, giving it — just occasionally — the register of an angst-y soap opera. It can be acute too, though. Alex is right, in the quotation above: confession doesn’t make something true. It’s not exactly unliterary either: he hosts a book group at Mr Peterson’s house called ‘The Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut’ (at which only books by Vonnegut are discussed), and he’s a voracious reader, especially when his epilepsy confines him to the house for a year:
Reading […] never made me feel like an invalid. And I found that the quiet concentration required actually helped to reduce the number of daily seizures. It put me in a state of mind that was good for me. (p. 72)
Alex’s epilepsy began when he was ten, after a meteorite crashed through the ceiling of his bathroom at home and hit his head, leaving him in a coma for several weeks. He recounts proudly how he is only the second person in history to have been hit directly by a meteorite. The other one — Ann Hodges, in Alabama in 1954 (pictured) — also survived. It may or may not have affected his personality, but he comes across as borderline autistic. He feels things very deeply (feeling them too deeply can trigger seizures), but he is unusually interested in the mechanics of things. The meteorite hit triggers a fascination with astrophysics, and the epilepsy gets him into neurology, both of which he reads up on and discusses in depth with adult experts (his doctor, and the scientist who analysed the meteorite). At school, he’s unpopular, because he enjoys studying. At lunch break he walks the perimeter of the school playing fields, alone, twice. Not that it does him much good, but he is perceptive about the evils of target culture. This drips with irony:
Education didn’t have to be its own reward. Education brought rewards later in life. If we worked hard, passed our exams and never gave up, one day we too could be as rich as Robert Asquith. (p. 87)
Robert Asquith is the entrepreneur whose money founded the Robert Asquith Academy, the school with the best exam results in the area. Of course, it’s a horrible place, in which the only lesson learned is how to be two faced, and at which bullying is rife. Alex has a moment of clarity after a fight with one of his tormentors, Decker, and informs the teacher investigating the situation (who is perfectly indignant, supercilious, despotic) that he hit him because he is a cunt. The incident is quickly absorbed into school lore, and here Ellie, an emo / goth who is the second of Alex’s unlikely friends, asks him about it:
‘Okay then, Mr Polite [...]. So why did you say it?’
          I thought about this for a while, trying to figure out how best to phrase it, and eventually, this is what I came up with: ‘Because naming something takes away its power.’ (p. 170)
It is an earlier event involving Decker and two other cunts (Studwin and Asbo) which introduces him to Mr Peterson. They see him walking back from the shops with an astronomy magazine, taunt him for a while, then give chase. He breaks through a hedge in desperation and hides in a garden shed, securing the door with a large bag of compost. Because they can’t get at him, Decker, Studwin and Asbo smash the glass in the greenhouse next to the shed, then leave him to take the blame. Mr Peterson, widower, Kurt Vonnegut fan and Vietnam vet turned pacifist, is the owner of the shed and the greenhouse. Alex’s mother negotiates a settlement whereby he has to do odd jobs for Mr Peterson until the broken glass is paid for, but after a bit of typing (letters on behalf of Amnesty International), they forget about the punishment and Alex starts going through Mr Peterson’s Kurt Vonnegut collection. This leads to the book club, which lasts fifteen months and overlaps with Mr Peterson’s diagnosis with PSP, a degenerative disease similar to Parkinson’s. The last act of the drama is a suicide attempt followed by Alex’s promise to his friend that he will take him to a clinic in Switzerland to die, in order that he can enjoy whatever time he has left without worrying about what happens when his mobility has gone completely.

It’s a touching and immensely likeable story, that makes a good contrast to Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa, with all its darkness and trickery. Both are books about friendship and loss, but The Universe versus Alex Woods is as guileless as its protagonist, as open as the autobahn on which Alex drives Mr Peterson to visit CERN on his one last day before dying.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Benjamin Constable — ‘Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa’

My dad lent me this book, which is by the son of my godfather. A glance at the introduction suggested it might be my kind of thing:
          ‘It’s the story of two people who hang around and talk and stuff.’
          ‘Uh-huh, yes, good,’ said Tomomi Ishikawa. ‘And what’s the angle?’
          ‘There is no angle. There’s no romance, no adventure, no —’
          ‘Wait, wait, wait, you must be mistaken. That would be boring. A book like this should have at least a betrayal, a stolen painting and a talking dog, or a monkey.’ (pp. 1-2)
Talking to Tomomi Ishikawa, AKA Butterfly, is Ben Constable, a protagonist named after the author, and based on him to some extent (at least according to his website: lives in Paris, teaches English, likes early evening drinks). Great, I thought. A book with no silly distractions. Straight (and hopefully funny) talking. No melodrama. So I was disappointed to find the introduction followed immediately by Butterfly’s suicide note, and a plot which revolves around a treasure hunt. You have to be kidding, I thought. Puzzles? Butterfly has left behind a series of notebooks concealed in public places, and clues on her laptop (she leaves this to Ben) which allow him to find them. Worse still, the notebooks all contain accounts of murders committed by Butterfly. It’s hard to imagine a more thorough betrayal of Ben’s conception of the book he wants to write (so: it must be deliberate). The two people don’t hang around, because one of them is dead, and the smart carefree talk is limited to scenes that Ben remembers and writes down in the midst of his grieving.

It is never clear whether or not the murders are actually supposed to have happened, whether they are fiction by Butterfly, or (a late suggestion, not sure if it’s exactly a spoiler) fiction by Ben, written as a way of dealing with her death. These, I think, are the ‘Three Lives’ of Tomomi Ishikawa. The same events, viewed from three different fictional perspectives. The stories in the notebooks accumulate into a narrative, a back story that darkens and enriches the character of whomever you consider responsible (mostly of Butterfly’s, then). The puzzles fade quickly, which is a relief: most are simply instructions about where Ben can pick up the next notebook from. In the first story, Butterfly meets a stranger wandering aimlessly in her home city, New York, on September 11th 2001. She follows him, he follows her, and they end up in his apartment. He tells her that his ex-wife was in the World Trade Center when the plane hit. He was on his way to meet her. He and Butterfly have ‘vacuous’ (p. 61) sex, and then she smothers him with a pillow. He is complicit, to the extent that he doesn’t resist. The style of the account is intense, teenage creative writing (‘by the evening of the day of this story I had been dead a long time. My body was just an empty shell’ (p. 55)). You don’t really believe the language, but the events express the numbness that must have pervaded New York that day.

So far, so psycho (except that there is compassion in the deed), but the remaining deaths are closer to home. Central to them is that of Butterfly’s nanny, Komori. As her father explains to her shortly before his own spectacular demise, Komori was Chinese, and a servant of the Japanese Sasaki family in Japanese-occupied Manchuria during the Second World War. When the Russians invaded in 1945, there was an evacuation of Japanese women and children, and the Sasakis smuggled Komori back to Japan, pretending she was one of them. Butterfly’s father, Takeo, and Komori were childhood sweethearts, but unable to marry because of the social gulf between Chinese and Japanese. He followed her to America nonetheless, and… married someone else, someone Japanese. Meanwhile, Komori was diagnosed with cancer. So then — this is the really weird bit, the solid gold piece of plotting that Trollope or Hardy would have been proud of — he gave his daughter to Komori, so that she would not be childless, though the cancer treatment meant she couldn’t have children, and so that she would have someone who could kill her when she got too weak from the disease. Takeo is only ever a shadowy presence in the novel, but it is this act of his which allows the rest of the story to happen. He explains to Butterfly:
You were brought up to do something that I didn’t know how to. You were brought up to live with loss that none of the rest of us could accept. You would be harder, stronger than us. You would be able to survive where we could not. (p. 244)
He cares too much to bring his daughter up, or to look after the woman he loves in her terminal illess. Unsurprisingly, his displaced, ultra-targeted compassion doesn’t make it to the next generation. Butterfly:
I think we’re just animals, trying to save our asses or our species. We are big piles of self-obsessed meat with lust for physical pleasure and chemical impulses driving us to procreate. Hormones provoking emotions that incline us to protect our young. Jealous need of possession. That’s what I think love is. (p. 247)
Although, in retrospect, you can sense Takeo’s moral code in Butterfly’s smothering of the stranger.

In contrast to all this darkness is the decidedly un-suicidal narrator Ben Constable, who isn’t afraid to follow Butterfly’s lead, but is at heart a socialite. He is endearingly muddle-minded and credulous, ignoring any number of clues, flagged up by the sharper Beatrice (his accomplice when he follows the trail from Paris to New York), that… well, that would be a spoiler. He suffers from prosopagnosia, the inability to recognise familiar faces, which is ideal for a narrator who is thoughtful and sensitive, but doesn’t see the whole picture. His whimsical reflections, and his refusal ever to ask ‘why?’, are a kind of insulation, but also a kind of buoyancy.
I love to look at the collected objects around me, each with a story that will die on my parting, and the stopped clock on my wall saves me precious seconds. Its hands point to twenty past three, optimistically suggesting time for one last thing. (p. 11)

P.S. Between writing the above and posting, S. zipped through the book at her customary speed, and was slightly unsure about it. She didn’t like the ambiguity as much as I did. Did this stuff happen, or didn’t it? Whose account are we reading? I argued that the murderous events are a reaction to emotional trauma: either that of Butterfly’s childhood (if they are supposed to have occurred), or of her suicide (if Ben has made them up). Leaving this open is a way of projecting the hollowness and the slipperiness of trauma on to the reader. It means you’re never sure of the ground beneath your feet, very much as if something or someone you rely on has been suddenly taken away. What appear to be techniques of distancing and displacement actually draw you in, and show you what it’s like to be lost.

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