Sunday, November 28, 2010

If I Had A Hi-Fi

It felt almost like a betrayal. Hi-fis were what adults had, to play their adult oriented rock and their opera. Kids had Walkmans in their ears, ghetto blasters in their bedrooms, and it was there that pop music belonged. A household’s secondary aesthetic, under the radar, secret but for the racket it made. Siblings meant opposing secondary aesthetics, related but independent sonic strands. In her first year at university, the elder of my two sisters went crazy for the Manic Street Preachers, and this caused tension with the younger when Nicky Wire said in an interview that he had ‘never seen the point of Nick Cave’. I loved both, of course, it was easier that way. And I would have listened to Murder Ballads and Everything Must Go on a Walkman, on tapes made from CDs, or on a pre-CD ghetto blaster with a portable CD player perched on top (it wasn’t very portable – movement made it skip). The tape A. made for me of Everything Must Go had ‘A Design for Life’ missing, because it had been on the radio so much and she thought the other songs should be given the chance to catch up. Any records which came my way were swiftly transferred to tape, too, for the actual listening part of the process. It wasn’t until the record player across the hall disappeared, along with the flatmate and student life, that I began to think that it might be good to own one.

I found an old Sony hi-fi in King Buyer on Albert Street (King Buyer sold all sorts of second hand household goods – fridges, sofas, TVs, and stereos. It’s gone now). It was one black block, almost a cube, designed to look like a stack of separates. It was £40, which was all I could afford and so, not wanting to make a rash purchase, I went to fetch N. from his flat nearby for a second opinion. A man in his late fifties or early sixties sat in an armchair amongst the bric-a-brac and gave us a demonstration. It took the three of us a while to work out that to get the turntable to spin you didn’t press a button, but moved the stylus arm towards the record. The record he had chosen was a 7" single by The Associates, Dundee’s only real claim to 1980s pop stardom (unless you’re going to count Ricky Ross, which I presume you’re not, or Edwyn Collins, who went to school here, and dreamed of adulation). We said how much we liked them, which was true – this was a few years after Billy Mackenzie’s terribly sad death, and there had been some recent re-issue activity, plus a biography, The Glamour Chase, which N. happened to be reading at the time. What happened next I can’t remember exactly – he didn’t come out and say, ‘I’m Billy Mackenzie’s dad, you know’, but he made a few quiet, proud comments which led us to this tentative conclusion. I mentioned a copy of the Perhaps album I’d picked up in Groucho’s, and this annoyed him a little – they were supposed to give him first refusal on any Associates records which came in, he said. He knocked a fiver off the price in exchange for Perhaps, which I dutifully handed in at the next opportunity. His daughter gave me a lift back into town with the stereo, and she said it was ‘always a pleasure to meet people who appreciate Billy’s music’. It was so touching, this brief impression of a family determinedly committed to his memory.

In truth, I was still a little ambivalent about The Associates at that stage. Sulk is a record which grew on me very slowly indeed, maybe a decade went by before it really clicked (the same thing happened with David Bowie’s Station to Station, thank goodness for regular re-issues). The first time around Billy’s voice was probably a bit much, and I only took to the more tuneful songs. But that is wrong-headed, it is a masterpiece for the taut yeowling miasma of side one, as much as for the energised hits which whip up an impossible peak on side two. These days I love every last note.

Sad to say, the stereo has been showing its age recently. Loose connections plague the panel at the back, half the time the turntable won’t turn and it takes a delicate massage of the electronics to get any sound out of the right hand speaker. It’s time to say goodbye.


Spare Snare – If I Had A Hi-Fi

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Jay Griffiths – ‘Wild: An Elemental Journey’

William Beebe ‘brought the underwater world right into the public
consciousness with his invention of the bathysphere’ (p. 188)
Appropriately I suppose, this book, an element-themed account* of arduous travels amongst the communities and landscapes of the world’s least western-civilised countries, was a struggle to get through. For several hundred pages in the middle I actively disliked its righteous / chummy style, which seemed needlessly egocentric. It felt a little like a bad Everett True book – just as his tendency to write about music only by writing about himself grates as often as it inspires (and it does inspire, of course), Griffiths’ highly personal take on what she calls ‘wildness’ relies heavily on having the reader onside as she combines sex, land, time, culture, language and religion into one tightly wound didactic ball. For instance:
While the untamed have ears for poetry – all kinds of poetic voices – the tame are trained only to hear the voice of the tamer, having ears only for command. The tamed know only the plumpness of convenienced asexuality: wild creatures smoulder in the groin, thighs slippery with juice, raw hormones, pheromones glowing in the dark. But the Christian god will never win, for still, still proudly anarchic, in thunder and cunt, cock and lightening, the raw core of our human spirit is still untamed, full of will, eloquent, kinetic and fleetly wild. (p. 376)
The good: wildness, poetry, exciting sex, exciting weather, spirit, polytheistic indigenous religion. The bad: tameness, the tamer, Christianity, complacency, dull sex. By implication, too, comes Griffiths’ central argument about the importance of a strong connection between a people and their land. How do you separate thunder and cunt, cock and lightening? You build walls and a ceiling, you put in double glazing and central heating. You move away from the land and you no longer understand the land, and then you exploit it in order to maintain your lifestyle. Alienation is a necessary result of western-style civilisation. The carrots in my fridge are there because I bought them from a supermarket, which I was able to do because I went and sat in an office all week. I could hardly be further from the carrots, and the land in which they grew. Or the land which somehow produced and continues to power the fridge.

Though couched in western terms, Wild is 100% anti western, or at least 100% anti western expansionism. There is no bright side to this, in its narrative. An Inuit elder may admit that life was harder before the arrival of capitalism, but this is in the context of the younger generation’s utter loss of knowledge, motivation, peace of mind, way to be, as a result of buildings, jobs, shops, schools. Modern home comforts may be OK if your character is already formed, is the implication, but if not, they will prevent it from developing. Western culture is male, linear, unbending and obsessed with conquest, which Griffiths explicitly links to the taking of virginity. It wants to measure, quantify, lock everything to the clock, the map and the calendar. Wildness is female, cyclical:
Women’s conversation ‘rambles’. We don’t get to ‘the point’. We don’t ‘think straight’. We make excursions off the subject, digress, think circuitously, and our free linguistic nomadism infuriates the overmasculine mind. (p. 306)
Perhaps this is the closest she comes to stating that in positive terms:
The purpose of indigenous law throughout the world is essentially to ensure that the natural world remains the same. (p. 276)
The first quote is from a section called ‘Nomads All’, in which nomadism is identified as the pet hate of European men, ‘heterosexual, Christian and adult’ (p. 305) – you can almost hear her spit here. Surprisingly, given many of the literary reference points (e.g. Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew – you can probably guess the uses they’re put to) and the frequent excursions into etymology, Griffiths is also anti-literacy, because it ‘profoundly alters people’s relationship with the wild world’ (p. 334) (and because the west ‘refuses to recognize indigenous wisdom even as it steals it’ (p. 98) – so, introducing literacy in no way complements the knowledge that is already there). This is a book to which it isn’t really possible to have a calm reaction. It is not new to disparage colonialism, but it is hard to imagine a book throwing its ongoing negative consequences in your face to quite the extent that Wild does. It is not subtle, but it is coherent and heartfelt and it gets under your skin. I’m glad I read it.

* Not real elements. Section titles are, ‘Wild Earth’, ‘Wild Ice’, ‘Wild Water’, ‘Wild Fire’, ‘Wild Air’ and ‘Wild Mind’.

Update: post edited 23/12/10 after a comment left and then deleted, by, so it said (and I have no reason to doubt it) the author of the book. She made several objections, and I have removed a paragraph and a quotation because I agree with most of them. One point puzzled me – the rebuttal of the charge of anti-literacy on the basis of oral traditions. I should clarify that by ‘literacy’ I meant reading and writing, not literature. Apologies for any misrepresentation – these are the impressions I picked up from the book, and are not based on any other background knowledge or reading.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Meursault at Dexter’s, Dundee, 4th November

        ‘So are you coming?’
        ‘Who are they again?’
        ‘You keep making me say it! I don’t know, Meuuuurseoooo. Merso. M-E-U-R-S-A-U-L-T. They’re really good, or at least their first album was. I’m not so sure about their second, it’s a bit buried in reverb. But they’ll still be good live.’
        [S. continues to play smartphone sudoku]
        ‘The first one was all punchy drum machines and sharp acoustic guitars. They’re quite anguished.’
        ‘What’s so funny about anguish?’
        [Assumes straight face] ‘Poor things.’

S. has a point there: anguish is the easiest route to a certain type of credibility, and as such is automatically suspect. Singing about trauma is like standing on a window ledge and threatening to jump: a demand for attention, cutting through inattention and apathy, but not, ultimately, endearing yourself. Maybe when you’re 16, the most important thing music can do is to say ‘I’m so, I’m so dissatisfied’, but pretty soon this can start to seem like a limited outlook. It’s also a trick increasingly difficult to pull as time passes. Are you really going to jump? You didn’t last time. Couldn’t you do something that would cheer yourself up more than singing about being miserable? After a Faith and a Pornography, you need a ‘Lovecats’.

Meursault use banjos, samplers, gentle acoustic and overdriven electric guitars, a cello (though sometimes not), harmonies, and a mixture of live and synthesised drums to give their anguish the urgency it needs, and it is not in danger of becoming stale just yet. Live, the distance that the production gives to this year’s All Creatures Will Make Merry album is instantly quashed, and you’re there on a bed of nails with them, uncomfortable but alive. Neil Pennycook’s howl of hurt is sometimes barely audible above the slabs of anachronistic noise, and sometimes it sinks to a caress above the simplest of banjo accompaniments. Before Meursault came along I’d forgotten how effective music which takes itself this seriously can sometimes be.

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