Thursday, June 28, 2007

Vic Godard and the Subway Sect – Glasgow Accies Club, 23rd June 2007

So anyway.

It’s not so true now, but there was a time when it seemed that every third article at Tangents was about Vic Godard. I’ve just been flicking through their back pages, and though I couldn’t find a whole Kevin Pierce article about him, equally it was hard to find one without a passing mention. He seems to have wanted to weave him into the fabric of everything he wrote about, the warp through which wefts could come and go. Often he wouldn’t say anything about Vic, but would mention him by way of making a point about something else. Lists of the things which ought to concern people, always with the knowledge that on the whole they really didn’t. But that was no reason not to spin them anyway. When the 20 Odd Years compilation came out he said that ‘for the gifted writing wonderful songs is a little like riding a bike’, which sums up Vic pretty well. Never appearing to try particularly hard; in fact, at his best when he’s forgotten that any effort is required at all, when the momentum carries him. And, racing downhill, he knows just the time to stand on the handlebars for a show-off bow, and just the time to give gravity a hand with a burst of pedalling, lifting your heart into your mouth as you listen.

There was something of this idea in the choice of venue for Saturday’s gig, which was at a sports – a rugby – club. Unusual, but warm, friendly. We found the street with the help of an A-Z and some muffled bass drum sounds, and were almost there when a car pulled up opposite and the driver called out, ‘are you looking for the gig?’ He drove us back the way we’d come, to where he’d seen some other lost and ageing indie kids, but they’d gone. He pulled up on to the pavement, phoned someone on his mobile, grabbed my rain-spattered and extremely faint Google Maps printout, and eventually drove us back to where he’d found us, and on down the driveway. We got out, and there outside the entrance was Vic Godard, wearing his baggy blue Royal Mail uniform, chatting to someone. ‘We’re in the right place,’ said Andy, under his breath, and I thought of all the times I’d annoyed him by asking him to play, out of all his vast record collection, the T.R.O.U.B.L.E. LP. Every time I went round.

I’d seen Vic just once before, in August 2000, when he came to Edinburgh and sang a set of Velvet Underground songs. This was how he promoted 20 Odd Years?! It was thoroughly great, though, Vic taking delight in imagining the negative journalistic response to such indulgence, and saying in his defence that well, isn’t this where it all came from, really? The Beatles, pah! He sang the Velvets’ later, gentler songs as they were better adapted to ‘my nasal tone’. ‘I’m Set Free’ was one, ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ another. ‘Sunday Morning’ too. There really are worse ways of spending your time. The wallop of a select few of his own songs for a second encore (he had the band play ‘Waiting for the Man’ unrehearsed for the first one) was twice as thrilling in the context of the crooning.

A similar thing happened on Saturday, but in reverse. The bulk of the songs were from 1976-8 – ‘that’s what gives them their ancient, archaeological feel’ explained Vic, who has apparently re-recorded the never-released debut Subway Sect album (why on earth…? It worked surprisingly well for Brian Wilson, I suppose). And it was exciting to hear ‘Birth and Death’, ‘Chain Smoking’ and the rest all scuzzed up and bloody, of course it was. But the real moments of magic in the set for me were ‘Stamp of a Vamp’… let’s just pause there actually, and try to recapture the scene: ‘Watching the Devil’ has just thumped insouciantly to a conclusion, and Vic has been proving himself more of an axe god than I’d have thought possible (thought they wiped all his parts on What’s The Matter Boy ’cause he couldn’t play?) But now he puts his guitar down. He announces ‘a smoochie number’. And in his baggy uniform, with steel-capped heavy duty shoes, he moves as though he’s stepped out of the post-punk apocalypse of 1978 into a ’30s MGM musical, being whisked up to the stars. ‘Sorry about the clothes’ he said afterwards, gliding back down to earth. ‘Next time I’ll bring my tux.’

The other moment which left me breathless was the last song, ‘That Train’. Not sure if it’s on a record: Vic introduced it as being ‘a gospel number I wrote a couple of years ago’, and with absolute poise and gusto ripped into a simple song which could have been as old as the age of steam. The drums clattered along like an express, a harmonica blew like a whistle and the lyrics revolved around the repetition of the words ‘that train is gonna save me’ and ‘that train will never come’. Typical Vic. Fully formed, unassailable, existential, catchy as hell and he probably knocked it off one morning before breakfast on his postal round, scaring cats as he went.

Monday, June 25, 2007

I always cry at endings

It’s not so true now, but there was a time when it seemed that every third article at Tangents was about Vic Godard…

I’d got this far into reviewing Saturday’s Vic Godard gig when I decided to have a look back at some of these old articles. They’d have been from around the time I started reading Tangents (2000? 2001?), which back then had a fiercely narrow focus: Vic, Orange Juice and Felt were the centre of the universe, and the website was bent on re-interpreting more modern Pop on those terms. I’d loved Felt since school, when Tim lent me the ultra-enigmatic Forever Breathes The Lonely Word tape – they were one of the very few reasons I was proud to come from the West Midlands. It was funny how Tim seemed to pre-empt Tangents like that. He also gave me Clientele and Animals That Swim tapes, way back. Orange Juice are one of my all time obsessions, and one of many reasons I’m proud to very nearly have come from Glasgow. I still can’t believe Edywn’s more famous for A Girl Like You than for You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, possibly the most under-rated LP in the history of Pop. And I swear, I’d long thought of Pop as having a capital P, even then, but Alistair nailed the idea so definitively both on the site and in his book Young and Foolish (that, at least, is still available) that when I started writing for Tangents a few years later I steered clear of the territory.

So, this was supposed to be a review of Vic playing a sports club in Glasgow for Tangents (Vic was new to me in 2000, but I fell in line fast, he was so obviously great), and I was – as you can see – already intending to reminisce a little about how the site has changed. But it got there before me, and is gone. There’s a note explaining why: ‘There are many kinds of freedom, but at the moment the freedom that I yearn for most is the freedom from expectation.’ I can understand that. I think it was Woebot who said recently that for a time his site had been a process of cherry-picking his favourite records to write about, but at a certain point he caught up and instead it became a document of the ‘research’ (I think he called it that, can’t find the entry) he was doing at any given moment. Which can also make for essential reading, but it must be harder, flying by the seat of your pants. And in a world in which nobody ever seems to anything but fly by the seat of their pants (I really don’t know how Momus keeps it – by which I mean Click Opera – up), I suppose that can get to seem dangerously conventional. Again Quentin Crisp’s phrase, that personal style involves ‘swimming with the tide, but faster’ seems to fit here. That’s what Momus does. That’s what Alistair has done, too, for so long (how does he listen to that many records? Aren’t teachers insanely busy as it is?) But he has done it at a tangent, across the current. It’s Lawrence Hayward’s own course: the bright loveliness of much of Felt’s output, and the proud awareness that it didn’t fit the times, that ‘we might as well stay in our rooms until we die’, because our rooms, with their Pop artefacts, are more than the world outside can ever live up to. I know that John Carney will continue to make this point vigorously at what is now a site in its own right, Shivers Inside.

I’ll miss Tangents a lot, and I’ll also miss writing for it. For the meantime I’ll put what I would have put there, here. The Vic review will follow. It’s perhaps time this became a real blog, not just a catalogue of the books I’m reading. Something to be read, not just to be written.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Yukio Mishima - 'Confessions of a Mask'

This has a remarkable cover:

Confessions of a Mask front cover

There is no way I'd have bought it if it hadn't been by Yukio Mishima and 30p. Talk about over-literal ham fisted imagery. The date? 1972, 1977 or 1985, are the publication and reprint years, take your pick. I'm going to guess 1985. If the front weren't bad enough, check out the back:

Confesstions of a Mask back cover

Now, whilst it would admittedly be tricky to write blurb about Mishima without mentioning the impressive suicide, here it's too prominent, surely? People don't read him because of the way he died, do they? And yet, having read it, the cover has begun to seem fitting. The man hanging there impassive to the swords, maybe even asleep. It isn't quite true that the book 'takes us deep into the fascinating and terrible world of the sado-masochistic homosexual': there is no sex of that nature here, nor much of any other nature. Nor is there very much focus on homosexuality, beyond a brief infatuation for Omi, an alpha male at school, and references to the narrator's 'bad habit' (frequent masturbation). Increasingly as the book continues, it becomes the elephant in the room as he tries to convince himself that he loves Sonoko - indeed, he does seem to love her, just not in a sexual way.

As I travelled toward N Village, along with every jolt of the train came the torment of a childish and pathetic obsession: I was determined that I would not leave without kissing Sonoko. My determination, however, was different from that feeling filled with pride which comes when a person struggles to achieve his desire in spite of timidity: I felt as though I were going thieving. I felt like a fainthearted apprentice in crime who was being coerced into becoming a thief by the leader of his gang. My conscience was pricked by the happiness of being loved. Or perhaps I was craving some still more decisive unhappiness. (p. 157)
This self-analysis is quite typical in its dryness and perspicacity, and is reminiscent of Proust (who gets name-checked, being described as a sodomite, as though this were his chief point of interest) in the way it shifts around: it is only certain that there is a strong emotion, and what the emotion is is open to endless interpretation.

The story is set before, during and after the Second World War, and in it the narrator can see a glorious death solving all sorts of awkward problems. From Mishima, this comes as no surprise at all, one only has to think of Isao from Runaway Horses. The character from The Sea of Fertility the narrator most resembles, though, is Toru from The Decay of the Angel. At least in the early stages of the book, he openly uses people and manipulates them, he is totally alone and he likes it that way. When the prospect of an early death fades, he mellows, becoming far more likeable. This I did find unexpected, but it was completely believable. The intensity of youth dissipates and death no longer seems glorious: he manages a kind of friendship with Sonoko, and as the book ends he finds himself attracted to some muscular young men with no shirts on at a table outside a dancing club. A happy ending, no less.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

R. Crumb and Peter Poplaski – ‘The R. Crumb Handbook’

Boy is this rude. And thoughtful, in an anxious way. In one of many mini-essays, this one called ‘The Litany of Hate’ (pp. 386-7), Crumb lays waste to the human character and the modern world (‘I hate cars. I hate modern architecture. Every building built after 1955 should be torn down!’) He even despises his own sexual impulses:

I was always repelled by my own sex drive, which in my youth, never left me alone. I was constantly driven by frustrated desires to do bizarre and unacceptable things with and to women. My soul was in constant conflict about it. I was never able to resolve it. Old age is the only relief.

He coins it even more neatly in conclusion: ‘”Hell is other people” – John Paul Sartre. “Hell is also yourself” – R. Crumb.’ It’s hardly a surprise that he feels this way, having just waded through 385 pages of secretions, but it’s also obvious by this point that it’s this sexual energy and his own ambivalent attitude towards it which is Crumb’s greatest asset in his cartooning. There was a decent selection of his stuff in the Ivan Brunetti anthology I read a while ago. One cartoon had him mooching existentially, and the drawing was a bit lifeless until he got himself down to the university and found an amply proportioned student to chat up. Immediately he had some tits to draw, the art picked up. Nobody draws nipples like Crumb.

John Boorman tried to escape from modernity (and to take it on) by retreating to the Amazon, and to his own boyhood. Crumb goes further back: he knows his own childhood came too late, was swamped by the mass media just as happens today. So he collects ’78s, and escapes to a time before rock ’n’ roll or (heaven forbid!) pop. He knows this is just a gesture though: his work is (as he says) a response to being brought up on TV and comics. The mass appeal slop that has stretched from his youth until now. He struggles against it, but from within it. It is a part of him, as much as his sex drive. He has no calm memory of semi mystical affinities with rivers, as Boorman does. He’s ten years younger, which will be a part of it, but also American, where this mass media slop was developed. There is no escape.

Quentin Crisp’s definition of a stylish person is someone who ‘swims with the tide, but faster’. This is what Crumb does with American culture. He sees the emptiness of promising people what they want (as long as it is TV or convenience food), and asks: what if you give them what they really want? Which is, to do bizarre and unacceptable things with and to women (and / or men). Hence ‘The Family that LAYS together STAYS together’ and ‘Joe Blow’, deliberately anaemic stories about (guess what?) incest. As far as I recall, there wasn’t anything actually pornographic in the Brunetti selection. This is rectified here. There’s a definite thrill in the absolute abandonment of propriety in Crumb, but crucially it is never about the abandonment of morals, only of proscribed behaviours. In a strip called ‘On The Bum Again’, the elderly and white-bearded Mr Natural finds himself on a train with an abandoned baby. At least, she’s referred to as a baby and has a baby’s hat on and a dummy in her mouth, but is otherwise she appears to be fully grown. They leave the train by a window and end up in the middle of the desert. Baby gets hungry. What’s the only fleshy nozzle capable of producing a milky white substance available? Yup, you got it. Why is this not morally suspect? Because… well it is, I suppose, a bit. But it’s a flight of fantasy, it’s not a real baby (she’s ‘a caricature of one of Crumb’s girl friends from his hippy days’ (p. 260), according to Poplaski), Mr Natural appears to genuinely believe he’s helping out, and the clear intention here is to wind people up. That sound pretty flimsy? The joke wouldn’t work if it weren’t.

John Boorman – ‘Adventures of a Suburban Boy’

Is this the ugliest Faber book? Usually they’re so pretty. This one, at least in paperback, uses a tiny font size, has photos in amongst the text on bad quality paper, and the cover, oh dear oh dear. Ugly superimpositions, coloured-in black and white photos, and worst of all – Boorman on the back attempting to pull Excalibur from a stone. Reading it at work surrounded by Sci Fi and Fantasy types, I felt distinctly uncomfortable lest they nod in approval. Talking to one of the more cultured ones last week about the new Pirates of the Caribbean film, he asked what kind of films I liked, and when I said I didn’t like Sci Fi, he assumed I must like Fantasy instead, because what else is there? Perhaps it was just the context of the Pirates conversation that made him think that. And is this why the film is so bad? Because it’s tipped too far away from buccaneering towards Fantasy? Reckon so. There are some OK jokes in there, and Johnny Depp is good of course, but the plot is all spurious mythology and I wasn’t able to hold even a single strand of it in my bored head from one scene to the next.

None of this is John Boorman’s fault. His autobiography is full of interest: funny stories, funny characters, and very nearly a sense of purpose. I’m tempted to say that the earlier sections are more vital, but maybe it’s just my snobbery (see above) kicking in: I couldn’t help feeling disappointed when the Sci Fi dystopian Zardoz crawled into view, and very nearly got followed by The Lord of the Rings. There is still great stuff to come after this point (about two thirds of the way in), like the diary extracts during research for 1983’s The Emerald Forest in which Boorman visits the Kamairan Indians in Brazil (I think it’s Brazil – somewhere in the vicinity of the Xingu river) and finds the tribe as divorced from the modern world as could possibly be wished. Hope and Glory, the last major film to be covered here, also sounds tempting, but the description of its making is not as good as the description of the events in Boorman’s own life upon which it is based. This is the pattern of it, perhaps: an early and untutored sense of the rightness of certain things in nature (rivers, trees, kingfishers), followed by a career attempting to capture this sense on film, through realistic means and fantastical.

The best story here involves Lee Marvin and a roof rack, but there are many others. Marcello Mastroianni eliciting sympathy for all the beautiful mistresses he is obliged to endure, Toshiro Mifune attempting to play Hell in the Pacific for laughs when someone gives him the wrong version of the script, or James Dickey (author of the novel upon which Deliverance is based) in general, being fantastically fake, confiding to everyone he meets that ‘it happened to me, you know’. The balance is all on the side of Boorman’s film career, as might be expected, his personal life being covered in asides or when it relates directly to the films. His attempt to write a film about the breakdown of a marriage after the kids leave home whilst this was actually happening to him, and to actually write it with his daughter, appears to spring from the kind of motivation which drives… I don’t know, Daniel Johnston, Robert Crumb… people who translate their life into art almost directly, with no filter. It’s not a trait one would usually associate with a film director, the cumbersome nature of film making not lending itself to this kind of directness. How could this impulse survive the scrambles for funding, the re-writes, the marketing? In this instance (Where the Heart Is, 1988) it doesn’t, but it sounds as though, in Hope and Glory, it might have made it though. Must see it soon.

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