Monday, June 28, 2010

Nick Cave, Dundee Literary Festival, 25th June

Nick Cave was in Dundee on Friday, reading from The Death of Bunny Munro (out now in paperback – and look, Canongate have finally arrived at a good cover), and being interviewed by his publisher, Jamie Byng. The readings were excellent, as you’d expect – the cruising in the Brighton sun soaking up the sex one seems to have become a set piece, and is absolutely prime Cave, as in-your-face hilarious / horrific as ‘Stagger Lee’ or ‘Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry’. Then there was an extract introducing Bunny Junior, and his habit of collecting things – which gave me a start, because I’d forgotten he did that, but it chimes with And the Ass Saw the Angel’s ‘Mah Sanctum’ bit (Euchrid in his bird’s nest of a hideout, stacked with shoeboxes filled with his disgusting accumulations), and also Cave’s collection of unusual words for the earlier novel. Not to mention ‘Nick Cave: The Exhibition’, which I was kindly directed to a while ago by a chap called Rafiq who said that it contained:
a copy of a hand written dictionary that Cave kept for the years he was in Berlin (where he wrote his first book). A whole note book of words that he had read or heard and liked enough to write down and define.
If I’d asked a question after the readings it would have been about this: collecting and cataloguing mundane objects. The questions which were actually asked were about writing practices (‘No, I don’t keep a checklist!’), the theme of redemption (‘I’m not sure that comes into it...’), and the humdrum ‘when you get an idea, how do you know if it is going to be a song, a screenplay or a book?’ To which the answer was, ‘The idea doesn’t come first, that’s the thing.’ The questions were all so damn awestruck. And you couldn’t blame the questioners, confronted after all with Nick Cave. You could maybe blame Jamie Byng for his uniformly bland, overly verbose non-interrogation, but then he wants to keep his author onside for a follow up book, which is fair enough. But what they were all getting wrong, I thought, was to see Cave as this untouchable rock ’n’ roll deity, spilling over in all directions, across boundaries and genres, cool because he is transgressive, larger than life and impossible to pin down, even as a seer with a hotline to God. Some of this may be true, but it is also pretty unhelpful. Cave himself always tries to turn the conversation around to practicalities, to his 9-to-5 approach to writing, and to the inspiration he takes from collected objects and observations (see the ‘Stories’ section of the exhibition site). I like the idea that at some level he is a train spotter, a bug collecter.

Actually there was a great question, right at the end. On the subject of abusive and / or neglectful fathers (i.e. Bunny and his own, even more grotesque father), someone asked, ‘Is there anyone by whom you feel demonised? And are you grateful?’ Nick Cave was in Dundee on Friday. How on earth did that happen?

There is a similar reading / interview available on iTunes’ ‘Meet the Author’ podcast.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Foxtrot Echo Lima Tango: a fanzine about Felt &c. 1980 – 2010

Listen to this. No, say this out loud:
Food, yeah. That’s a weird one. Because, like, the thing about food is – everybody’s a vegetarian in the music business. I can’t believe it! I’ve never ate a vegetable in my life! I think I was forced to eat a sprout once when I was two, you know – that’s the limit of it really.
Are you feeling the lilt of it? Try some more:
It’s up to them. It’s their choice. It’s perfectly OK. But I get some stick. I wish people wouldn’t give me any stick. ‘You need vegetables...,’ all this kind of rubbish. Maybe you do, but I’m not hurting anybody. It’s up to me if I don’t want to. I can’t eat vegetables. I mean, my mum took me to the doctors when I was about four – after the sprout – and she said, ‘This baby won’t eat – he just won’t eat.’
Chances are you are now talking Brummie. At least, I was by the time I’d got that far. I miss that accent sometimes, it is prosaic but it can be so warm. If you were down but not yet out, that’s the voice that would do you most good. If you were engaged in producing a run of the most austere, literate, self-consciously precious records to grace the 1980s, though, it mightn’t be what you’d choose. The Lawrence which emerges in this fine new Felt fanzine is isolated from the rest of Birmingham: he lives that line from ‘Crystal Ball’, ‘we might as well just stay in our rooms until we die’, with his meticulously clean, air-freshened flat, the kitchen cupboards filled with nothing but his collection of Kerouac paperbacks. He walks a line you get the impression that only he can see: between fame and self-sabotage, between trashy concept and fine feeling, between work and non-work. He is as finicky as Kraftwerk, but without the accompanying wealth or acclaim. Not that there hasn’t been acclaim, of course, but it must be hard to remember it or feel its worth when you end up, after all that, not famous, on the dole. This fanzine is beautiful because it shows the breadth and depth of reactions to Felt, it shows that plenty did see the line, it is full of love and obsessional responses to Lawrence’s obsessional detail.

A few highlights:
  • Benjamin Knight’s ‘Sunlight Strings the Golden Glow: The Guitar of Lawrence’, which introduces the word ‘felty’ to the language, to describe the softness of a band’s sound, and is insanely detailed without ever losing its awestruck tone. For example: ‘At 1:40, some double notes spike between Lawrence’s words accentuating them before he stops singing long enough to let the guitars lead us down the shortest lonely path back to the song’ (on ‘Hours of Darkness Have Changed My Mind’).
  • ‘Felt on the Tyne’, an idiotic radio interview with a DJ who’d never heard of them. ‘YOU’RE VERY LAID BACK HERE AND EVERYTHING BUT ARE YOU GONNA SOCK IT TO THEM. ARE YOU LIKE A NOISE BAND? OR ARE YOU TOTALLY MOODY?’
  • The two long interviews with Lawrence, by Chris Heath (from 1987) and Alistair Fitchett (from 2005), particularly the sprouts line from the former and his fierce defence of not selling out in the latter. ‘For the kids, for the people who really love music like me. There must be somebody like me.’
  • Alasdair MacLean’s line about the way Felt made him and his school friends feel ‘estrangement from the details of our lives’.
  • Maurice Deebank’s anonymous third-person grumbling about history’s focus on Lawrence, and his spectacularly un-Pop missing of the point: ‘If you have something worthwhile offering, then let it speak for itself.’
  • Alex Deck’s home-made ‘Felt Box’, made of felt with felt lettering, the inside a trove of clippings and photos surrounding a series of TDK cassettes.
It’s really pretty special. Get one from here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

E. M. Forster – ‘The Eternal Moment and Other Stories’

The second of Forster’s two short story collections, published in 1928 but written before 1914 and, taken together with The Celestial Omnibus, it represents ‘all that I am likely to accomplish in a particular line’. It is a pretty squiggly line, veering from the home turf of anguished rich travellers (‘The Eternal Moment’), to more fantastical, metaphysical territory. ‘Co-ordination’ imagines Napoleon and Beethoven in heaven, measuring their glory in terms of how often people still perform the works of one and mention the achievements of the other; quality and interest are ignored, and they get excited unnecessarily about the activities of a school with a Napoleon themed term during which child after child plays parts of the Eroica symphony badly on piano. ‘The Story of the Siren’ has men and women driven mad by beholding an underwater siren, or at least driven to a state of mind in which they can only relate to other people who have experienced the same thing. ‘Mr Andrews’ considers the ascent of a Christian and a Moslem to heaven. ‘The Point of It’ is an exercise in snobbery directed towards the middlebrow, or else a robust defence of taste in the face of ageing, and contains this bleak but halfway convincing prognosis:
By different paths they had come to Hell and Micky now saw that what the bustle of life conceals: that the years are bound either to liquefy a man or to stiffen him, and that Love and Truth, who seem to contend for our souls like angels, hold each the seeds of our decay. (p. 52)
But the real interest in this book is in the first story, which is particularly far even from the line established in The Celestial Omnibus. ‘The Machine Stops’ is science fiction. The earlier book satirises modernity’s obsession with advancement and activity, which feels like an internet theme to a modern reader. ‘The Machine Stops’ goes much further, predicting the rot of the attention span down to about ten minutes (the maximum length of a YouTube clip), the total loss of primary sources from the education system, the loss of geography as a meaningful concept (hello broadband), and the fractured discourse of instant messaging / tweeting / texting. People live in stacked hexagonal boxes beneath the earth’s surface, and all of their physical and conversational wants are supplied in situ. The messaging system is based on tubes and doesn’t seem to be electronic, but its functionality is identical to much of today’s communication technology: many conversations are held at once, there is a constant scramble to be first with a new idea (with the emphasis on ‘first’ rather than ‘idea’), and lectures are no longer something to be attended and absorbed, rather they are delivered to the home and last, as I say, a mere ten minutes. People leave their hexagonal boxes so rarely that they can’t remember how to interact with others when they encounter them face to face. Vashti, the central character, has a ‘horror of direct experience’ (p. 11). The whole of this civilisation is controlled by the machine of the story’s title, and the machine’s manual is the only book left over ‘from the age of litter’ (p. 7). Artefacts are a thing of the past – so digital copies, too, are anticipated. There is no indication that any force more evil than a drive towards economical performance is at work behind this, but the results are deadly:
Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not? In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally. (p. 17)
Because of the confined living circumstances, physical strength is now a disadvantage, and in childhood, ‘all who promised undue strength were destroyed’. It’s an anti-target message, and an anti-technology message. If things become too easy, they cease to be worth doing at all.

A few more quotes:
And of course she had studied the civilisation that had immediately preceded her own – the civilisation that had mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead of for bringing things to people. (p. 9)

Night and day, wind and storm, tide and earthquake, impeded man no longer. He had harnessed Leviathan. All the old literature, with its praise of Nature, and its fear of Nature, rang false as the prattle of a child. (p. 10-11)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Georges Simenon – ‘The Brothers Rico’

        Simenon: When I did a commercial novel I didn’t think about that novel except in the hours of writing it. But when I am doing a novel now I don’t see anybody, I don’t speak to anybody, I don’t take phone calls – I live just like a monk. All the day I am one of my characters, I feel what he feels.

        Interviewer: You are the same character all the way through the writing of the novel?

        Simenon: Always, because most of my novels show what happens around one character. The other characters are always seen by him. So it is in this character’s skin I have to be. And it’s almost unbearable after five or six days. That is one of the reasons my novels are so short; after eleven days I can’t – it’s impossible. I have to – it’s physical. I am too tired. (The Paris Review Interviews, vol. 3, p. 28)
This intrigued me. It seemed a healthy mixture of popism and rockism – the work ethic of the latter, the ephemeral flourish of the former. Was a serious novel ever written in eleven days? Is an author justified in getting quite so intensely involved for a piece of pulp fiction? I like the idea that he ends up somewhere he didn’t know he wanted to be by a process of which he is not in control.

The Brothers Rico is mentioned in that 1955 interview as the one of his recent novels of which he is most proud. It is from 1954, so perhaps his memory doesn’t stretch back very far, but still. There are three brothers Rico: Eddie, Gino and Tony. Middle brother Gino is a hit man, elder brother Eddie runs a protection racket in Florida, and Tony is a getaway driver. The problems begin when Tony marries Nora Malaks, and word gets around that he might, if the police ‘gave him a chance and weren’t too rough on him’ (p. 57), give evidence in court against ‘the organization’. The organization cannot allow this to happen, and call in Eddie, the responsible brother, to track him down, ostensibly to warn him and get him shipped out to Europe. The allegation is curious because it is so vague. Nora’s brother Pieter is the one who makes it. An ambitious young man, an assistant manager at General Electric, with one eye on the chance of an eventual place on the board of directors, he goes to the police, presumably horrified by what his sister has told him of her new husband. Maybe it’s civic duty, maybe he sees that the higher he gets in his own career, the worse it is going to be to have a gangster for a brother-in-law. Tony’s complicity in Pieter’s second hand offer of a confession is never confirmed. Given that his wife is pregnant, it would seem the worst possible time to make a decision of that sort. This is something of a weak link in the novel’s plot, but it doesn’t affect the tension that gradually builds up around it.

Boss Sid Kubik lays out the facts for Eddie at a meeting in Miami, and his reaction to Pieter’s ambition is revealing:
Was this to imply that Pieter Malaks was the same sort of person as Eddie? Well, it just wasn’t so […]. He, Eddie, had never aimed that high. He was satisfied with his Florida setup, had never tried to make up to the bigshots. Didn’t Kubik know that? (pp. 55-6)
Eddie Rico is a pathetic specimen. He makes a virtue of always doing as he is told, and although his patch of the extortion network is relatively violence-free, The Brothers Rico shows how morally untenable this position is. He thinks he has done pretty well for himself, with a nice house, and a wife and kids to whom – unlike Tony – he never imparts compromising information. But this leaves him isolated in an underworld which does nothing but use him. He is proud of his status as a regional bigshot, but incredibly sensitive to over- or under- estimates of his importance. He wants respect without responsibility, and in a slightly autistic way he wants to fit into the organization’s jigsaw, not realising that everyone else is playing chess.

The novel builds to two great set pieces in chapters seven and eight, in the first of which Eddie finally catches up with Tony and confronts him. The movie version is quite close, though Tony and Nora seem more innocent. The tragedy in this scene is that it is of no consequence: all that matters is that Eddie has led the organization to Tony’s hideout, and in the subsequent chapter, back at the hotel, they place a guard on him and make him sweat it out.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

This Is Not Le Weekend, Part Two: Peter Parker and The Sexual Objects, Tolbooth, Stirling, 29th May

The merchandise stall was the preserve of the last two bands on Saturday’s bill. At first glance it looked more like Peter Parker’s table, with their free button badges and 7" singles – one all to themselves (‘Swallow the Rockets’), and one split with The Sexual Objects (‘Pretty Living’). But there were some clear A4 folders too, containing four sleeveless 7"s (including the Objects’ otherwise unavailable ‘Full Penetration’), a couple of CDs, and a fanzine in a choice of light green or pink, proclaiming at the front: ‘The Creeping Bent organisation salutes the written word of our favourite oracle, Tangents / Unpopular Culture, and in particular their Fifty Thousand Reasons series, reprinted here with their kind permission.’ There follow John Carney’s words on Davy Henderson, Alan Horne and Dave McCullough. What a fabulous reminder of what’s important. Wasn’t there supposed to be a book of this series coming out? It should do so. Of course I felt a special thrill for having once been so ludicrously uninformed on the subject of the Fire Engines at the same website a few (six!) years ago. But I’m catching up, slowly.

This was my third time in the presence of The Sexual Objects. The first time, they began so unpromisingly with a round of slow rambunctious harmony singing before deigning to launch into their good stuff. Davy’s not-quite-American drawl sleazing nonsense the while. The parallel between that noise and Vic Godard’s messier recordings is only just dawning on me – the song title ‘Outta Place Again’ is a clue, referencing ‘Out Of Touch / View’, it is so strange to hear that sound shorn of its harsh London inflexions. My second time seeing them they supported Vic, and we missed the beginning of the set. But maybe they are a band best burst in upon in flagrante, in the white heat of their anti-passion. Davy’s drawls were great on that occasion, perving on ‘the beautiful girls of Peter Parker’, with whom they were about to release ‘Outta Place Again’ on that split single, and time-stretching the legendarily short Fire Engines live show, going on about ‘23 minutes seems like 23 freaking hours’ in reference to the Objects’ set length, and then ‘23 seconds becomes 23 years’ in reference to God knows what. There’s a playful arrogance to the man’s every move which can be irritating until you tune in and start to agree with it. In his article John Carney says, ‘For Davy though the Captain and his Magic Band were the thing, like say Love were for Michael Head. We’ve all got our touchstones.’ We do, but how rare and how brilliant is it to find a new one?

Peter Parker were fun, as last time. Roz’s cherry bob was in fine condition, and Jane was fabulously sarky. ‘Last time I was in Stirling I saw R.E.M.’, said Roz between songs. ‘Don’t tell jokes’ was the instant put down. Later on someone heckled something about women and apes, which Jane picked up: ‘What’s that? Women like apes? We have to, otherwise we’d be lesbians.’ [laughter] ‘Thanks for setting me up, doll.’ Then they ripped into Jeremy, stage left, for it being his 42nd birthday. ‘You wouldn’t think it, would you?’ ‘42, eh?’, etc., etc., for minutes on end. Jeremy stood stock still, moving not a facial muscle. You’d imagine he must be used to it. The music was full bodied jerky coquette pop, with one tune nicked wholesale from Duran Duran’s ‘The Reflex’, and I was thinking maybe it didn’t quite hit home until the last song, ‘Once In A Lifetime’, with its two note nagging guitar married to a varispeed disco beat. Disco finales are great – see also The Lodger’s ‘Good Old Days’ set climax at Mono a month ago.

Back to that new touchstone. Whose band opened with a lurching swampy instrumental number like a stationary car revving in the rain, its wipers juddering unevenly as bulbs shoot from its snoot. Yeah. Davy’s head swaying lopsidedly and looking as always like he was trying to swallow his red Fender Jaguar directly through his stomach wall. I remember those mannerisms from that otherwise under-appreciated Fire Engines show. Giving the lie to the band name, this is not cock rock, it is visceral. They’re back on the harmonies for the second song and these are as bad as before, but this time I’m reminded of what Matt Groening said about Trout Mask Replica: ‘It’s the worst dreck... But they want it to sound that way.’ The out of tune male voice choir bit is the moat you have to cross before being admitted to the castle of ‘Merrie England’ et al. (I don’t know or care how ironic that is, but it is nice to have a Scottish singer singing about England in the run up to this dreadful World Cup season that is about to hit). The remainder of the set was thunderous. Just as it got into its stride I couldn’t help but peek at a text message someone in front of me was composing: ‘It’s a bit disappointing actually. There is no Jiz’. Which almost topped the single entendre of Davy’s announcement that The Sexual Objects’ album is to be called Cucumber. In the unlikely event that they haven’t already thought of this, Chris said he’d like the cover to be like The Velvet Underground & Nico except with a cucumber instead of a banana, please.

What did it sound like? I just stumbled across A Jumped Up Pantry Boy’s argument for Station to Station, which I can sort of see, but also a more down-to-earth Television for the vocals, Beefheart of course for the logic, and 1978 Subway Sect for the falling down stairs whilst playing aspect. Compared to The Nectarine No. 9, whose Received Transgressed & Transmitted I have recently been lapping up, they are a move from eclectic dub strangeness to relatively more straightforward rock, but there is a corresponding jump in energy which makes them irresistible. A few feet to the left of me, a man danced like he was dislocating his right arm with each gyration, lost in the elasticity of a sound which suggested everything. It’s art rock, but it pulls your body apart as much as it does your mind.

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