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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

I

Towards the end of Wild Mercury – a tale of two Dylans, the late great Ian McDonald‘s brief but insightful survey of Bob Dylan‘s life and career, written for a glossy music mag on the occasion of his 60th birthday in 2001 and reprinted as the lead essay in his The people’s music (Pimlico, 2003), he suggests: “Bob Dylan’s career is one of the great spiritual journeys of our time. Check it out.”

II

Scott M. Marshall‘s Bob Dylan: a spiritual life (BP/WND Books, 2017) gives us such a narrow picture of that journey that it feels a lot of the time like it’s a discussion as to what the man is going to enter as his religion on the census form.  Dylan’s ’60s output is very briefly considered for its Biblical references and that’s it.  How did it feel?  But that’s not his concern:

Did Bob Dylan, by 1970, have a personal relationship with God? Whatever the case, there is precious little doubt that he possessed a strong monotheistic bent.

III

You see, Scott M. Marshall is a ‘God-botherer’.  What this means here is an unbelievable, undermining prissiness in his use of blush-sparing dashes.  He quotes Tim Drummond, bassist in Dylan’s fine Christian period band, reacting to the hostility some brought to the gospel concerts:

“Well they brutalised him; they were all pissed off because he wouldn’t sing the old songs […] I told him that I’d stay with him until the t—- fell off the Statue of Liberty, after seeing what he went through.”

Yup.  Her ‘t—‘.  That’s how it’s straightfacedly printed.  Why is Ned Flanders writing this book?  Even when he’s quoting the man himself –  from what Marshall calls a ‘matchless’ interview in Rolling Stone in 2012 with Mikhail Gilmour – we get “You can tell whether people have faith or no faith by the way they behave, by the s— that comes out of their mouths.”  (This is one of those Dylan interviews, by the way, which, if you have the taste, is worth a read; early on there is discussion about the Christian concept of ‘transfiguration’ as applied to himself – a passage that Marshall chooses not to mention.)  Reporting the same interview, he continues:

For the record, after calling his detractors from yesteryear a name that cannot be repeated here, Dylan let those “Judas!” folks know that he wished them eternal strife.

For the record he calls them ‘motherfuckers’.  To quote him quoting him again: “So f—-ing what?”   Well there is Bob’s response to the infamous 1966 Manchester “Judas!” heckle: “I don’t be-lieve you. You’re a liar”.  And to the band:Play fucking loud”.  Try meaningfully blanking that from the history.

IV

To be fair, Scott Marshall‘s main concerns are not with the actual music, nor most aspects of his subject’s life – booze, drugs etc. – outside of the narrow religious definition he’s working with.  Bob Dylan: a spiritual life is a mix of some productive original interviewing and a big cut-and-paste job of published interviews and other material.  It gets a bit repetitive as the years pass by.  But some of the interviews certainly told me something new.  In particular with:

  • Dave Kelly (Dylan’s PA at the time of the fortnight’s run of gospel shows at the Warfield Theatre in SF in November 1979, whose attempts – at Dylan’s prompting – to engage the wider Christian communities were met with indifference)
  • Regina McCrary (one of the experienced gospel singers who accompanied him on stage in the gospel years)
  • and T-Bone Burnett (pleading not guilty to the charge, as is often presumed, that he was responsible for Dylan’s ‘conversion’ to Christianity) –

V

The book would probably never have come to be written were it not for Dylan’s apparently sudden adoption of an evangelical brand of Christianity in 1979.  The tale is told; not quite so sudden, but he had a ‘knee-buckling’ personal encounter with Jesus Christ.  He followed it up with a three-month course of Bible study with the Vineyard School of Discipleship in San Francisco, and recorded Slow train coming, his first Christian album.  When he went back on the road it was basically with a gospel review, featuring none of the old songs, and interspersed with some hellfire preaching from the man himself.  This lasted, with two more albums, but some leavening on stage of some old songs towards the end, for nearly three years.

One of Bob Dylan: a spiritual life‘s strengths is its logging of the variety of responses from Dylan fans, Jews and Christians to this episode; it was dismissed as a gimmick by some, treated with suspicion on all sides. The 1970s take up 50 pages of the 254 pages of actual text, the 1980s 43 pages.  There can be no doubt that he meant it, man.  And has not refuted it since, though his understanding of his ‘mission’ has altered a whole lot.  Never mind the labels, he was sold on the Testaments, Old and New; and Revelations.

But for all the Gotta serve somebody he never actually signed up with anybody, and his Jewish roots were still in the ground.  “There’s really no difference between any of it in my mind,” Marshall quotes him, from Neil Spencer’s 1981 interview in the NME.  And, in a section Marshall doesn’t quote in that interview, in response to the question, “You’ve always had a strong religious theme in your songs even before you became a Christian”, Spencer records Dylan angrily saying: I don’t really want to walk around with a sign on me saying ‘Christian’.”  Bit odd, considering the sermonising a couple of years previous, but Dylan has always been suspicious of labels.  At concerts in this period he would introduce the stirring In the garden (“When they came for Him in the garden, did they know? / Did they know He was the Son of God, did they know that He was Lord?“) as This is one of my anti-religion songs right here.”  A very personal Jesus, then.

VI

As an atheist and humanist I’ve never had much of a problem with the music religion inspires.  Hymns I sang with relish as a lad, Handel, gospel music, John Coltrane, ‘old time’ bluegrass.  How can I?  I may not feel I have been saved “by the blood of the lamb” but I can happily sing along to Dylan and Co powering along about it.  I may find it hard not to think occasionally of the character in Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy who heckles, “What blood group was he?”, but this is exciting, liberating, musicTrouble no more, the 13th volume of Bob Dylan’s Official Bootleg Series delivers live performances from 1979-1981 – the gospel years.  It is full of powerful vocals – Dylan aided and abetted by a four woman chorus steeped in the stuff – with some great ensemble playing from the band.  Intense, moving, at times solemn, accusatory, testifying, at others playful, or plaintive.  And, yes, the odd moment to these ears of languor – When he returns.  There are some gorgeous melodies to play with here too.  What has surprised me more than anything else is the warmth to be found amidst the uncompromising fundamentalism, not least, of course, in his interplay with the gospel chorus; when not straight preaching – actually oft when he is – he’s enjoying himself.

The 2-CD compilation finishes with one of Dylan’s finest songs, the awesome Every grain of sand, testament to the progression his writing underwent as the preaching nature of Slow train took more of a back seat.  Other highlights for me are the infectious singalong Ain’t gonna go to hell for nobody, The groom’s still waiting at the altar (which rocks as hard as anything he’s done), the passionate In the garden and the vocal dexterity of Dead man, dead man and Shot of love.  There was plenty of creativity going on in what some still insist as lost years; he would, of course, say that he was found.  Naturally I remain unconverted but I’ve had a hell of a good time.

VII

The booklet packaged with the 2-CD edition of Trouble no more (that’s its cover on the right) adds something too.  There are appreciations from a Christian and a non-believer (who’s like me’s singing along), and extensive notes on each track.   Here are a couple of things from it that would have added to A spiritual life:

  • For a bit of context: worryingly, at the time Dylan was reading a book called The late great planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey, first published in 1970 and taken up by no less than Bantam Books in 1973 – the first book of Christian prophecy put out by a mainstream secular press, part of the whole Reaganite rise of the Christian Right phenomenon in the US, seeing the Book of Revelations being played out in Russia and Iran.  “Lindsey turned out to be something of a nut … who, in 2008, suggested that Barack Obama was the AntiChrist,” the writer adds.  (In the Neil Spencer NME interview previously mentioned (reproduced here) Dylan peddles the old the Earth is 6,000 years old riff; I wonder if any subsequent interviewers have asked him if he still believes that.)
  • The late 1978 change of lyrics in performance to the great Tangled up in blue, so when she opens up “the book of poems written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century” (a favourite passage of mine) becomes “The Gospel according to Matthew, Verse 3, Chapter 33” – fortuitously keeping the rhyme – only for the apparently incorrect citation to be revised again to ‘Jeremiah’ the next night.

VIII

As suggested at the outset, I think that Scott Marshall‘s definition of a spiritual life is way too narrow to encompass Bob Dylan‘s art and life.  He rather begrudgingly hints at this in another quote from the 2012 Rolling Stone interview:

“Clearly the language of the Bible still provides imagery for your songs,” Gilmour added. “Of course, what else could there be.” The seventy-one year-old goes on to assert that it’s impossible to go through life without reading books and claims there’s some truth in all books while citing a laundry list of titles and authors: the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Buddhist sutras, the Koran, the Torah, the New Testament, Marcus Aurelius, Confucius and Sun Tzu.

There are steps on the way that don’t interest our monotheist author, from the time Dylan immersed himself in folk music and hit New York in 1961, telling Izzy Young he Never saw a God; can’t say till I see one” through to the immersion of us completists in the songs of Frank Sinatra (I’m afraid I had to pass on Triplicate).  There have been so many ideas in the air among his close compadres; though he can dismiss them with ease later, they were still stations on the way.  Marshall himself quotes Dylan twice saying, “But I always felt that if I’m going to do anything in life, I want to go as deep as I can.”  Or as his son Jakob puts it, “He’s never done anything half-assed. If he does anything he goes fully underwater.”  I’ll just leave the back cover of Desire, with Tarot card and Buddha (and Joseph Conrad) hanging there.

The crucial thing is that Bob Dylan seems not to have let his faith compromise friendships with non-believers like Alan Ginsberg or Jerry Wexler, producer of Slow train coming.  This quote about the latter, unfortunately without citation, is from the Official Bootleg booklet.  The “confirmed Jewish atheist”:

“… was never going to fall under the spell of true to life Christianity,” Dylan said.  “But that’s beside the point.  There are a lot people who live the life of a Christian in their behaviour and speech, but would never count themselves among the faithful.  However, there are just as many souls who profess to be Christians whose actions and speech prove that they wouldn’t know Christ from a hole in the wall.”

IX

A few more snippets from Scott M. Marshall‘s Bob Dylan: a spiritual life that I think bear repeating:

  • astutely he avers: “Terms like ‘religious,’ ‘Christianity,’ ‘conversion,’ and ‘fundamentalist’ were virtually absent from Dylan’s vocabulary, but his personal experience, as described by outsiders was – and is – constantly framed in those terms.”
  • contrary to those who ascribe cult status to the Vineyard Church: “What is interesting here is that, contrary to some speculation, Dylan’s decision to sing only his gospel material from November 1979 through My of 1980 was not the decision of the Vineyard Church. In fact, Larry Myers, the pastor who visited Dylan’s home in early 1979 (and who was invited on tour in 1979-1980) urged Dylan to sing his older material.”  [I looked up Vineyard on Wikipedia: they have spread internationally; there have been schisms] 
  • when he returned to featuring his ‘oldies’ live, Dylan changed the punchline of the coruscating Masters of war. “It’s original line, “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do” was dropped and – to this day – has never been uttered in performance of the song. “Dylan knows it is not biblically correct,” asserts author Ronnie Keohone …”  Frustratingly we are not told what it’s replaced by; this atheist fears a diminution of power.
  • a tribute to Ralph Stanley and the old guys, as told to John Pareles in 1979: Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book … All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from Let me rest on a peaceful mountain to Keep on the sunny side. You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back towards those old songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing I saw the light. I’ve seen the Light, too.

X

I’ll finish as I started with Ian MacDonald.  He offers three theories on the art and life of Bob Dylan.  First jokingly is that he’s “currently the world’s greatest performance artist. (That’s ‘performance’, not ‘performing’.)”  Except you couldn’t make it up.  Second is the flawed human being and artist … and genius (a word not to be used lightly).  Third is the embodiment of the Jungian archetype of Trickster.  The current Sinatra stuff could come from anywhere in that spectrum.  Personally I wish he’d get bored with that – though not without some merit (Autumn leaves!), surely 5 CD’s worth is enough.  I look forward to a last full flowering of his writing.

Currently, the last time I looked, none of the specifically religious material from the three album sequence of Slow train, Saved and Shot of love is featured in performance (http://www.boblinks.com/111817s.html).

The title of this piece – Trailing moss and mystic glow – is the result of an act of bibliomancy using Bob Dylan: Lyrics 1962-2001.  From the song Moonlight on the Love and theft album.  Fits as well as anything more obvious, I’d say.  Must go and remind myself how it goes.

 

 

 

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I’m not immune to the pleasures of this kind of literature, though there are times when the tedium of the photo captions prove I’m only a fellow traveller in the land of the railway enthusiast.  There is only so much you can say about a railway photograph: time, place, train, loco details and history blah blah blah, while any semaphore signals in evidence might well get a mention.  I pity the poor caption writer if he has aspirations to rise above railway nerd status; most don’t.

So I’m puzzled as to what is going on here, with this, the second most boring photo – the most boring is also an even less distinguished DMU (diesel multiple unit) – in David Cross‘s interesting enough compilation Diesels around London: a colour portfolio (Ian Allan, 2006), that I borrowed from the local library (use it or lose it!).  The photo credit goes to one Michael Mensing, but I’m not sure if the caption belongs to him or David Cross.  Anyway, you don’t need to click on the photo to read the caption, because:

Formed of a four-car Derby DMU, train 2C59, a semi-fast service from Bedford to St Pancras, is 8 miles into its journey as it emerges from Ampthill Tunnel in May, 1965.  these DMUs would provide the commuter service for many years until electrification of the line between Bedford and Moorgate in May 1982.  Since the photograph was taken the station at the small market town of Ampthill has closed, passengers now being directed to use the station at Flitwick, some two miles to the south.  Just out of sight on the right [my italics] is Houghton House.  Designed by Inigo Jones and built in 1615, this was reputedly the model for the ‘House Beautiful’ in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Empty since 1935, the pollution from several nearby brickworks having eroded much of the stonework, it is presently being restored by English Heritage.

To his credit, Cross does, in describing a photo of a ‘footex’ special – yes, they used to put on special trains for away football fans as late at least as 1984 – give the result: Spurs beat Luton 2-1.

As an occasional poet I remain intensely proud of the lines:

Yes I’ll admit I trainspotted
In the boy’s time allotted –
British Railways then,
What a crazy scene!

This usually gets a laugh.  Then was late 1950s and early ’60s, when the British Railways Modernisation Plan of 1955 was just taking hold.  The programme of  steam locomotive withdrawals hadn’t got up much steam yet (sorry) and an intriguing variety of new diesel locomotives were suddenly appearing all over the place.  Many of the tribe eschewed these modern interlopers but modern boy I was well up for it as well.  That diesel throb, and they looked so good in the traditional green livery.  Like that Warship on Diesels around London‘s cover, and the two-toned green with white outlined cab windows of the Deltic on its title page.  Then they moved into what is now known as a re-branding exercise – from British Railways to British Rail – and two dead artistic hands were brought into play:

  • i). Health & Safety painted an un-aesthetic yellow warning blob on the diesel locos’ noses, a blob that got bigger and bigger as time went on, and
  • ii). Modern design conceptualists (fine in their rightful place but …) painted everything apart from the yellow blob an un-vibrant blue, and the romance was gone.

With the proviso that this is not railway photography, rather photos of trains, Diesels around London carries plenty of photos of that era (and some up to the 1980s) that document in passing this uglification well enough.  Compare and contrast the early pre-yellow blob etc liveries below with the degraded aesthetics on those further down (click on the photos for a bigger picture):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK.  It’s a shame that cheap decent colour photography wasn’t more widely available back then, but I still get great satisfaction from books like Diesels around London because they can remind me of a time … the decades fade away … when I could get excited, as I skipped between London termini, by a sight like the one below, at Euston in 1961:

This one IS railway photography, I’d say. Credit to John Edgington.

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And so, early in March, to Linford Wood, in Milton Keynes, while the trees are still bare:

Sad to say the wood sculptures are not what they once were – the grand old bearded philosopher and the big gorilla are long-lost to the elements – but it’s still a worthwhile wander, eyes primed for the crafted creatures; the bluebells will be out again soon and there’s a decent chance of seeing a jay.  Here’s one of the survivors:

2011

2017

Meanwhile, back indoors …

Engrossing evening of a dialogue outside ‘the bubble’ with Milton Keynes Humanists guest speaker Salah Al-Ansari, Senior Researcher with the Quilliam Foundation, an academic theologian and a practising imam.  Salah is one of the leading lights of the liberal wing of his faith – what is becoming known as Reform Islam – which recognises the Koran as a sacred text but significantly also regards it very much as an historical document – pretty much as the Christian Bible is seen by most these days.

A wide-ranging, open-ended conversation ensued, which was both enlightening and entertaining.  Salah kicked off the discussion with the view that we should be talking about Islams in the plural.  Interesting to learn that when he was studying to become an imam in an Egyptian university, his professor was a woman.  It was agreed that secularism does not imply atheism.  Positive change, albeit slow and not so often visible, is happening among the Islamic communities.  An ex-Muslim atheist in the audience added spice.  There is more about Salah at www.quilliaminternational.com/about/staff/salah-al-ansari/ and from there, if you are not familiar with them, it is well worth exploring the work of the anti-extremist (from all sides) Quilliam Foundation further.

Because it was there

I have piles of books I intend to read but I often take an impulse book out from the local library for no other reason than because it’s there.  The library I mean.  Use it or lose it!  Hence the next book, that happened to catch my eye.

I’ve always looked upon the American artist Edward Hopper as the painter’s equivalent of a one hit wonder – you know, the haunting Nighthawks, all the lonely people in that late night cafe.  Ivo Kranzfelder‘s Edward Hopper 1882-1967: Vision of reality (Taschen, 1995/2006) has disabused me of this but, to continue the metaphor, I still wouldn’t want more than a single disc ‘Best of’, and vinyl at that.  A bit samey, and I’m not convinced by the (please don’t take this the wrong way) proportions and posture of some of his women (like the one on the book’s cover, actually).

It’s a handsomely produced volume, with some stunning black and white photos by Hans Namuth of the man himself, not least those taken in places he painted.  Frankly, sometimes I struggle with writing about painters and what they were trying to do, and a chapter head like The secularization of experience doesn’t help.  Apparently he didn’t say much about it himself, but what did strike me was that 1942’s Nighthawks, and a number of his other more well-known paintings, were being done at precisely the same time as Abstract Expressionism (not that I’ve got much against …) was evolving and taking hold of American art in New York.  So good for him for sticking to his guns to the end.

Anyway, not to in any way get things out of proportion, I have to claim it was a bit of a trauma – after all the landscapes, townscapes, buildings, room interiors, urban scenes and absorbed individuals, all the mustards and terracotta, muted browns, dull turquoise, beiges, greys and olive greens – to turn over from page 105 and suddenly be all at sea; as it happens one of these was the first painting he ever sold.  Normal service was quickly restored.

What it says on the poster

Staying in the library, I learned a bit and was mightily entertained by this FoSSL (Friends of Stony Stratford Library) presentation. The turbo-driven opening chords of musical director Paul Martin on the mandola suggested we were in for a treat and so it proved.  Shakespeare – a musical celebration, curated by Vicki Shakeshaft, was a fascinating and nicely paced mix of music, songs (take a bow soloist Simon Woodhead), readings and contextual history with a colourful morris dance duo thrown in for good measure.  And all, if my powers of recall are functioning properly, without resort to “If music be the food of love …”  Came as a surprise to me that “Who is Sylvia / What is she” was the Bard’s (from Two gentlemen of Verona – if asked I’d have said music hall), and my English teacher never told me that Hamlet’s advice to the players was a rant and that “Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them” was a gripe at Shakespeare’s company’s erstwhile clown, Will Kemp, who once morris danced from London to Norwich.

Further musical adventures

No poster for the early March Vaultage, but it was a good ‘un.  Folkish duo Phil Riley & Neil Mercer – guitar and mandolin – did a great set of their own material with a singalong of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the free world somewhere in the middle, finishing with a thrilling Russian folk dance-based tune.  Oi!  The March Aortas – nice and varied – deserves a mention too.

First Scribal I’ve managed this year  – Out! Damn virus! – was another good one too.  Stephen Ferneyhough kicked off with a musical history of the Brackley Morris with one of those squeeze box things – I can never remember which is which.  A storming set from featured singer Bella Collins – great voice and material (folk, blues and beyond), skilled emphatic guitar, foot stomping on the floor.  Own songs and a couple of covers – Jimmy Reed’s Shame, shame, shame morphing into Prince’s Kiss and back again!  Stephen Hobbs is wearing his bardship well, as if there was any chance he wouldn’t.  Mark ‘Slowhand’ Owen’s dazzling fretwork on one of his songs had a couple of us fearing for our own fingers just thinking about it.

And finally … best book review ever (click on the picture if you can’t read what’s between the cat’s legs):

 

 

 

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I was going to say about the Welsh male voice choir we saw in Wales in my what-we-did-in-Wales post but they somehow slipped off the agenda.  Fortunately it fits nicely with one of the books I’ve been reading, which is, as it happens, all about singing …

Naked at the Albert Hall Book One

In Naked at the Albert Hall: the inside story of singing (Virago, 2015) Tracey Thorn tells of a recording session with Elvis Costello at which he asked if they wanted an ‘Elvis Costello’ vocal?  The authenticity/artificiality continuum is a recurring theme.  In an interview with Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, she’s somewhat taken aback by something he tells her: “Hang on, are you saying we can all do the Scritti voice just by smiling?” After which she comments:

If you are not now trying to sing The sweetest girl while experimenting with different degrees of smiling, then you are not the reader I took you for.

OK, I passed, but that shouldn’t let her potential disappointment put you off.  (And if you’ve never heard of Scritti Politti you probably know the song; there’s a link at the bottom of this post to it in all its 6 glorious minutes.)  True, when it comes to men she’s a bit punk as Year Zero – momentous that John Lydon sang in an English accent, no mention of Ray Davies and the Kinks – but easy to forgive the spiteful charm of her description of Mick Jagger’s voice:

It’s a cartoon of a black singer, painted onto a balloon and then inflated, then put through a mangle, then through an amplifier. What comes out the other end is patently foolish and ridiculous, and turned him into one of rock’s most admired singers …

At the time of its publication Tracey Thorn, she of Everything but the Girl, hadn’t sung in public – and still hasn’t as far as I know – for 15 years, because of chronic stage fright.  Naked is more than an addendum to her lively Bedsit disco queen memoir.  She was hoping, she admits at the end that it might have been a shot at therapy, trying to see what it means for her to still put ‘singer’ as her occupation on the passport renewal form.  And so it turns out, though not necessarily as expected (no spoilers!).  In the chapter Why sing? she says:

In this book I’ve focused on the trouble with being a singer, in an attempt to balance out some of the idealised clichés I’ve grown tired of. And I’ve looked for stories that mirror my own …

It’s a fascinating journey, starting from the physics and physiognomy of the voice  (“… unlike any other instrument, these components are your own body parts“) and takes it from there, reminding us that “Musicians … are separate, distinct from us, in a way that singers are not.”  In that way our bond with singers is “egalitarian” – we can all do it – and yet … not.

She talks to fellow women singers – seeking out particularly reluctant singers, ‘the silent sirens’ who chose to disappear, and those who don’t particularly like their own voices;  similarly she looks at the lives of some no longer with us (Dusty Springfield’s “brick wall of self-doubt and discomfort“, Sandy Denny’s fear of fame, the tragic Karen Carpenter) – while examining the career aspects of the singing life.  (Oh, and there’s a chapter on Scott Walker. )

She unpicks aspects of her subject generally taken for granted, and – intriguingly, too, for us bibliophiles – tellingly draws on characters in novels to further illustrate what she’s talking about: Willa Cather’s The song of the lark, George du Maurier’s Trilby, and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, no less, are the main texts drawn on.

Some sage professional advice is offered in passing:

Singing live is like a complicated sporting event for the voice. A fiendish obstacle race. Over this hurdle, around this tricky bend, down for this horrible low note.

And once over that there’s the problem – this from a chapter called Little monsters – “… when you move from the territory of having listeners into the realm of having fans.”  Be warned, my musical friends.

Naked at the Albert Hall is entertaining and informative, conversational and confessional.  At times it sparkles and you feel she must be good company.  It’s full of nice asides like when the author tries a hypnotherapist to see if it can help with the stage fright:

She put on a CD of ‘spa music’, the least relaxing form of music in the world. Noodly pan pipes, fretless bass. Treacly synth sweeps and occasional random harp. The music that has ruined every facial I’ve ever had, every massage, every seaweed wrap.

From what I’ve said so far you might get the impression Naked is all about the perils, the trials and tribulations of the singer’s workplace, but it is also a celebration of the human voice, as a source of joy and transcendence:

Set against this egotistical aspect of singing, which exploits the possibility of personal allure, is the concept of singing as a shared experience, something to join us together.

Which is where the Welsh male voice choir comes in.

The Welsh male voice choir

The hotel we stayed in Wales a couple of weeks back played weekly host to Côr Meibion Cymau, the Cymau Male Voice Choir.  It’s one of those community things that is slowly dying out.  They do it because they love it, and for local charities, take a collection at the end.  Cymau is a village in Flintshire, North Wales, near Mold.  About 10 blokes – one of them told me there used to be 40 of them – white shirts, black trousers, quietly proud, aged from about 40 to 70+, enjoying one another’s company.  Damn, I should have taken a photograph.

I’m not saying it was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life, but it moved me – but it was uplifting, fun, there was the definite odd tingle up the spine – and it will stay with me.  If I had a bucket list seeing a Welsh male voice choir in Wales would have been on it.  They delivered a varied repertoire: a spiritual, a setting of the Reverend Eli Jenkins’ Prayer from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, American Trilogy, Unchained melody and, with a tenor solo, The Rose (which far from being the ancient genre piece I imagined it to be, actually dates from the ’70s and was made famous by Bette Midler).

They did a routine about what happens when one of their members’ voice goes, when the day comes when he can no longer sing, when he can contribute to the choir no more.  One night in the middle of winter the whole choir convenes in a large hut perched on the side of a local mountain.  Cue the choir making  wintery noises, cold winds, a dark and stormy vocal night.  The broken man is ritually stripped of his clothes and ceremonially pushed out of the door onto the snow covered mountainside.  To the harmonious strains of, “F-reeze a jolly good fellow …”

Flying ScotsmanBook Two

Andrew McLean‘s The Flying Scotsman: speed style service (Scala/NRM, 2016) is a visual delight, a nice piece of book design featuring items in the collection of the cathedral that is the National Railway Museum in York.  So as well as a wealth of photographs from the earliest of the 1880s through to the Deltic diesel era and beyond, we get page after page of social history, and of sublime and sometimes strange railwayana: plenty of those classic posters, some carriage prints, cigarette cards, a tea set, the centenary anniversary wine list cover and even a fan.

FS 01 Here are a couple of my favourite double spreads: on the left,  railwaymen posing on the signal gantry at Hatfield in 1932; below, the time-travelling bizarrerie of the businessmen at the bar on the Flying Scotsman as late in the 1950s.  The book’s themed text is more companion to the illustrations than any attempt at being a definitive history, but it still manages to throw up much of interest.

FS 08In its conception and development the notion of modernity was central to the railway company’s marketing.  Initiated as the ‘Special Scotch Express’ in 1862, with both the up and down trains leaving simultaneously at 10 o’clock in the morning at Kings Cross and Edinburgh, it soon became known, initially, as The Flying Scotchman – oh yes!  Competition between the East Coast and West Coast routes to Scotland was intense – a very different model of privatised rail transport than holds sway today.  The Flying Scotsman was central in this, and as explained in the chapter entitled Building the brand, the confusion that still exists between the express train and the locomotive of the same name, introduced in 1923, was quite deliberate.

FS 06A few other things I wasn’t expecting.  In 1924 they introduced a cinema carriage.  During the General Strike the Flying Scotsman was deliberately de-railed by Northumberland miners removing a track section – what would the history books say if that had gone disastrously wrong?  And in the ’30s the installation of the LNER’s (London & North Eastern Railway) Railway Queen: “a ceremonial position given to the daughter of a railway worker every year, to promote railways and British culture at home and abroad.”  Now if that isn’t a gift to a budding historical novelist, I don’t know what is.

Great Western BeachBook Three

Doing my duty by the Book Group I started on Emma Smith‘s The Great Western Beach: a memoir of a Cornish childhood between the wars (Bloomsbury, 2008) without much hope of being able to stomach it – just look at all those pastel colours on that idyllic cover photo from the family album.  Overcoming the disappointment that, despite that tease of a title, the sights and sounds of the Great Western Railway played no part in the scene-setting, I was soon sucked in by the authorial child’s voice though – the book finishes when she’s twelve – and read enthusiastically through to the end.  That voice initially reminded me of James Joyce’s Portrait of the artist as a young man and … despite the age thing, a big touch of the diaries of Adrian MoleEmma Smith juggles nicely – manages the illusion – with giving us the info so as to know what the score is without the adult intruding and jarring the child’s naive yet knowing flow.

In fact, what we have here is a tragi-comedy of a dysfunctional family life that is full of tension, people trapped by circumstances beyond their control (the past is another country) played out in the – ok – idyllic and beautifully evoked setting of Newquay and environs.  Her father – an officer and a war hero, is a resentful bank clerk, a stubborn failed painter who will not be told – is married to a woman four years older than himself; he is her fourth fiancé, what with the Great War and the Great Flu.  The fine details and pain of scraping out a genteel poverty are acutely described, as are the changes when they inherit loads of money from her rich uncle and they become, among other things, the life and soul of the tennis club.  It could be one of H.G.Wells’ social novels.  The subtle nuances of social class, of snobbery, hypocrisy and prejudice in a seaside town are all horribly apparent.  Some of the language shocks: ‘darkies’, ‘Jew-boys’ – we have come a long way.

But we also get the joys and pregnant confusions of childhood, of friendships and adventures, of the daily life, lovingly recorded.  Indeed, one does begin to wonder at quite the level of detail of recall – this was written in Emma Smith’s 80s – that is going on here, though my father did tell me the older he got, the more he remembered from his childhood, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.  You wonder what happened to them all – mother, father, elder sister, twin “milksop” brother, younger sister – but it’s one element of the book’s magic that we’re not told.

I could go on, but this post is too long already.  Her father’s cringingly embarrassing bad-tempered excuses when he loses at tennis, which he always does are pure Fawlty Towers.  And yet she and her father bond over literature – poetry! Omar Khayyam! – which her mother regards as “degenerate, unhealthy, immoral.”  As I say, I could go on, but I’ll leave you with this lovely image of shelter from the storm:

Picnics-on-the-beach is the one area of an otherwise discordant marriage where our parents are in harmonious, if tacit, agreement. To be out of the house, out-of-doors, to be sitting on the sand, or on smooth rocks, with the sounds of the sea making unnecessary any attempt at conversation: this has, for them, it would seem, a significance of almost religious intensity, notwithstanding the acrimonious preparations, always attendant on these regular family outings … they are a form of salvation for our mother and father, and so, by association, for their children.

As promised, a musical bonus

Herein the link to Scritti Politti’s The sweetest girl from their Songs to remember album of 1982.  I’d say they boast one of the great band names, acknowledging the influential Italian Marxist writer and political theorist Antonio Gramsci.  But never mind that.  Here is a gorgeous piece of timeless inventive pop music, some melody lines that you may well be humming for quite a while: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExC0oK28VLA

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Suspicions pbkSuspicions hardbackIn the nursery, Whicher was shown how the blanket had been drawn between Saville’s bedclothes on the night of his death, and the sheet and quilt ‘folded neatly back’ to the foot of the cot – which, he said, ‘it can hardly be supposed a man could have done.’

Yup, this for real a quarter century before Sherlock Holmes made his first bow.  Whicher was a friend of Charles Dickens – the character of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House draws on him – and one of the first generation of elite police detectives in London.

In unspectacular yet engaging prose, Kate Summerscale‘s The suspicions of Mr. Whicher or The murder at Road Hill House (Bloomsbury, 2008) catches a zeitgeist moment when things changed, when a few more pieces of the modernity jigsaw can be seen to have dropped into place.  The sub-title of the US edition suggests a broader canvas: A shocking murder and the undoing of a great Victorian detective.  From the details of the distressing case of the killing of a three-year old child in Wiltshire in 1860 we get to witness the establishment of the detective as a significant role in civil society, the growth of a sensationalist press and the evolution of crime fiction.

Nevermind the progress of the actual case, and its probable solution, which is interesting and original enough in itself, though I will say nothing more specific of it here, we also get to see various aspects of the changing Victorian class structure as they are played out, and the not so curious parallels in the growth of the modern methods of detection – the first record of the word ‘clueless’ is as late as 1862 – and Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is also a background presence generally; “Objects were incorruptible in their silence. They were mute witnesses to history, fragments – like Darwin’s fossils – that could freeze the past.”  Detective recruits were inevitably working class men of ambition, and as such were regarded as establishment sell-outs by their peers but greatly resented as rude, ‘low and mean’ intruders by a middle class struggling to hold on the privacy implied by the notion of the Englishman’s home being his castle.

In the matter of the evolution of the crime fiction genre – and you will recall that Dickens was heading that way with his unfinished The mystery of Edwin Drood – the Road Hill House murder was influential from the start,  setting the template for so much of what was to come.  Wilkie Collins’s The moonstone,

a founding fable of detective fiction, adopted many of the characteristics of the real investigation at Road: the country house crime in which the criminal must be one of the inmates of the house; the secret lives behind a veneer of propriety; the bumbling, pompous local policeman; the behaviour that seems to point to one thing yet turns out to point to another; the way that the innocent and the guilty alike act suspiciously, because all have something to hide; the scattering of ‘real clues and pseudo clues’ …

Margaret_Oliphant_Wilson_OliphantBut the popular novelist Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897), was fearful for her craft.  Looks like she lost.  She blamed it:

… on the detectives. Sensation fiction, she said, was ‘a literary institutionalisation of the habits of mind of the new police force.’ The ‘literary Detective’ she wrote in 1862, ‘is not a collaborator whom we welcome with any pleasure into the republic of letters. His appearance is neither favourable to taste or morals.’ A year later she complained of ‘detectivism’ …

Detectivism!  Now there’s a word for us to finish on Kate Summerscale‘s splendid exploration.  Recommended, and another justification for Book Groups, because I wouldn’t have occurred to me to read it otherwise.

Maestra

Bronzini - Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time

Bronzini – Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time. Seeing this in a gallery on a school trip changed our heroine’s life.

MaestraThere are at least three graphic murders in L.S.Hilton‘s Maestra (Zaffre, 2016), and there’s no mystery as to the killer, though don’t ask me to tell you what’s going down because I’d have to do a re-read to be sure and life’s too short and the to-be-read pile is too tall for that.  Not that it’s not an exhilarating ride for a lot of the time.

Why did I read Maestra?  It got a real going over in Private Eye but part of their reviewer’s beef was the good reviews it had got in some places; a blogger I subscribe to said it had some real merits, and it was cheap – a hardback for a fiver on Amazon, where the reviews are polarised.  Mention is made of 50 shades but that’s bollocks – (not that I’ve read 50 shades) L.S.Hilton can write.  I didn’t feel unclean so much at the detailed, sometimes orgiastic, sex (though I could have done without so much of it, and I’d need diagrams to understand what they were doing a lot of the time) as at all the designer label specifics.  And when I say all I mean a lot; is it fair to blame James Bond for starting that fictional trend for brand specifics?

Artemisia Gentileschi - Allegoria dell' inclinazione. recognising this clinched her interview to get the job at the auction house.

Artemisia Gentileschi – Allegoria dell’ inclinazione. recognising this clinched her interview to get the job at the auction house.

Same artist - Judith beheading Holofernes. A staple of classical art used as an artful counterpoint in the book.

Same artist – Judith beheading Holofernes. A staple of classical art used as an artful counterpoint in the book.

It’s a question just how much these two aspects of the novel are important in establishing the character of our anti-heroine, for this is indeed an homage to Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr, Ripley.  Judith Rashleigh (bloody hell – I’ve only just realised she shares a name with her in the painting) has had a difficult start in life, but she is given a purpose by Art.  She gets a junior job in one of the major auction houses where she discovers a). a low glass ceiling – breeding, who she knows – that excludes her advance, and b). very little love of art as art, as opposed to big profits, scams and/or money laundering.  Indeed, the only person there who shares her appreciation for the paintings is the caretaker in the basement.

Circumstances lead to her mixing with the super-rich on a modern Grand Tour of Europe, indulgence, intrigue and skullduggery.  Contempt for the super-rich elites who don’t know or take for granted the proper aesthetic value of their goodies drives the righteousness of her acts.  Which then inevitably take on a logic of risk and necessity of their own, leading to more of the same.  It’s a compelling first person narrative portrait (though one could argue the realism of the events) of someone who knows what they want and feels it is deserved.  Though there is something, too, which is endearing about her social observations.  And there are a couple of massive twists in the narrative that make it an intriguing read, one, though I had huge doubts during the opening chapters, I don’t regret giving time to.  Last words: “To be continued”.  Here are a few little squibs, some delightful scorn, that mean I’m tempted:

  • about a gold-digger: the diamond on her ring finger as spectacularly disproportionate as her tit job

  • the Med of the super-yacht anchorages: And even the sleepiest village square would contain a boutique or two where the women of the floating tribe of Eurowealth could pop …

  • about an ageing Russian oligarch: his face was timelessly malicious
  • on billionaire interior decoration stylee: All I could think of when we got to the apartment was that God never resists a chance to show His contempt for money.

  • on a murderee: … it occurred to me that one feels less guilty about murdering a man who reads Jeffrey Archer for pleasure.

  • on rich men again: If there was one thing I wanted never to see again if this little European tour came off it was another fucking tasselled loafer.

  • at the Venice Biennale: a squawking gaggle of dealers and art-whores…

Scribal, Bards, Yorkiefest

Scribal May 2016SS Shak 400Magnificent in significant parts, May’s Scribal Gathering was a bit of a strange one.  Featured acts were great.  Stony Bard Vanessa Horton was in great poetic form and anxious to remind us in passing, “I do do serious stuff too.”  Rutland Troubadour Paul McClure started off with a Prince tribute, harmonica harness in place and in use – I wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t told us – and

The splendid Paul McClure.  (No credit given to the photographer where I lifted it from)

The splendid Paul McClure. (Sorry – no credit given to the photographer where I lifted it from so none here)

delivered a fine set of Americana flavoured songs of his own making (including one that segued nicely into and out of Woody Guthrie’s This land is your land) to great applause and had us warming the cockles singing along with “I’m gonna find myself a little ray of sunshine.”  Inevitably we got Phil Chippendale’s localised This land – always a pleasure to singalong – later.

What else?  The bravery of stand-up comics who carry on regardless when no laughs come; the generosity of an audience that holds on for at least the sign off joke … that is not delivered.  A sour misanthropic sub-Chandler spoken word piece triggered by its author’s feeling of injustice at not getting enough time previously.  Which was one of the reasons Stephen Hobbs – introduced as Stony Stratford’s Alan Bennett – had to cut short his addendum to a really rather good piece he’d had to cut short at the well received Shakespeare open mic event at York House a couple of weeks earlier.  Hey ho, for the rain it raineth everyday.

But the evening concluded gloriously with the powerful voices of Andy Powell and Tim Hague doing their rousing acapella maritime thing: the moving Cornish boys, The Dogger Bank and another one I can’t remember.  And so out into the night to be confronted again by the damage to Stony Stratford High Street resulting from the big fire on the first day of May – photo at the bottom of this piece.

YorkieFest 2016YorkieFest line-upYesterday the fourth annual YorkieFest down the road at York House.  Click on the programme and then click again to read it.  Another great day’s music.  Invidious to single anyone out, but what a talented bunch of singer songwriters!  David Cattermole called back for an encore, gave us the mesmeric Can’t find my way home we’d been hoping for.  Great to hear some Bollywood played live – good vibes from Navaras; even got us singing along.  Roddy quality as ever, and The Fabulators really rocked the joint.  It was all good.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Poor old Stony, in particular those directly affected.  Photo mine own.

Poor old Stony, in particular those directly affected. Photo mine own.

Claudio Ranieri, 1973 - a class act.  Congratu;lations to Leicester City.

Claudio Ranieri, 1973 – a class act. Congratulations to Leicester City.

 

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Or… I probably shouldn’t do this in omnibus mode.  Anyway, this blog post is dedicated to Oliver Cromwell, though probably not entirely as you’d expect (except for Pete N. maybe).  But for now, later for Ollie.

Martin Edwards - Dungeon houseFirst, some crime fiction …

The dungeon house (Allison & Busby, 2015) is the seventh of Martin Edwards‘s never less than interesting Lake District Mysteries.  As well as the action moving west to Ravenglass and the coast, it breaks fresh ground in that retired telly and academic historian Daniel Kind, who kicked off the Mysteries sequence, stays pretty much in the background. His now temporary live-in girlfriend (that happened in the sixth book), maverickish DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of Cumbria’s cold case team, is very much to the fore, investigating the possibility of links between the disappearance – one 3 years ago, the other very recently – of two young women, and what appeared to be an open and shut multiple murder and suicide case twenty years back.  A case, indeed, in which Daniel’s late detective father, Ben Kind – Hannah had been his protegé – had been involved, and had his doubts.  So the soap opera aspects of the Mysteries – one of the real strengths of the series – take on a retrospective tinge too.

The dungeon house is populated with a rich and varied cast of characters, variously damaged by, or related to people involved in, the events of 20 years ago.  Naturally as events unfold there are plenty of twists and one major red herring, all climaxed with an unsettling and nicely executed suspenseful denouement.  Police budget cuts and administration-by-spreadsheet hover in the background – a standard feature of most British crime fiction these days – while Les Bryant, wily old detective brought back into the cold case team as a consultant, plays the part well.  There’s a swipe at the Police Federation, from the long serving local rep: “The stable needs a bloody good cleansing. You could say I’m Fed up.”

Is it just me or is a bit more humour creeping into The Lake district Mysteries?  Not laugh out loud, but with interviews conducted in “yet another Lakeland tearoom”, for instance.  This may have something to do with Hannah being more prominent in the action, more comfortable with her place in things, and re-finding her mojo:

Les Bryant poked his head around her door. ‘Going to this meeting about the new Communications Strategy?’
‘Nobody told me about it.’
He sniggered. ‘Nothing would surprise me in this place.’
‘I’m scheduled for a briefing on the Transparency Agenda, plus catch-ups with Finance and HR either side of lunch. Not to mention ten minutes ruled out for that photo shoot for the new identity cards to get us in and out of the building, and an hour’s online course about …’

So … what to do next?:

Good Hannah was duty bound to attend the various activities scheduled for her, even if the online course was one more wearisome example of ‘sheep-dip training’. Bad Hannah would suffer a severe memory lapse – why not blame deficiencies in the IT system? They were a reliable scapegoat. She could race off to Ravenglass before anyone trapped her in a corner, and started blathering away about key performance indicators.
Good Hannah never stood a chance. Her evil twin opened the door, and chased after Les.

She’s an interesting lass, capable of hyphenating ‘dream-come-true‘, developing nicely:

Hannah found herself itching to give him the benefit of the doubt. She couldn’t help feeling sorry for the man. This was a weakness in a detective, she knew …

I look forward to more opportunities for her to show her strengths and weaknesses, and hope poor old Daniel Kind can stay very much in the picture when Hannah moves into her bachelor pad in Kendal; he’s feeling a bit insecure.

BR StandardNow for Oliver Cromwell …

That’s him on the cover (of a recent charity shop purchase), that’s him in the sunlight, clean.  As a republican I love it that the last express Pacific steam locomotive retained in service by British Railways was Britannia class 70013, Oliver Cromwell.  Shame he ultimately made such a mess of the English Revolution and bequeathed us the problem of Ulster, but hey, even though he eventually neutered them, the Putney Debates of 1647 could be said to be the start of modern democratic politics in action, and for twenty years the English were citizens, not subjects.  I’d like to favour the idea of some kind of conspiracy theory among subversive railway workers that made sure it was Oliver who lasted longest …

The naming of express steam locomotives in the middle of the first half of the twentieth century was a very establishment affair, ideological in its celebration of traditional hierarchies.  Worst offenders were the Great Western (GWR) and the London Midland & Scottish (LMS) Railways.  The GWR’s crack express locomotives, the Kings, celebrated the monarchy, and stuck to its semantic guns by – although steam locos are still often referred to as ‘she’ – ignoring (because unladylike?) any Queens that happened to get in the way.  Working back from George V, the sequence went from the teenage Edward VII to William IV, missing Vicky, and further down the line from Edward VI to James I, missing Liz I.  They even subbed poor old King Stephen (who was as far back as it went), bringing on Edward VIII to keep up with the times, and didn’t reverse it even though he was never crowned.  Other classes on God’s Wonderful Railway celebrated the homes of the aristocracy with the Castle and Hall classes, and lesser country houses down to the Manors.

With the Kings taken, for their express Coronation Class locos the LMS had to resort to Princesses and Duchesses and a couple of Queens (but only the wives of kings), though to be fair the rest of the class was named after cities.  Their Jubilee class saluted among other things, the far-flung reaches of the British Empire (eg Bechuanaland).  Somehow, with the odd exception, Dukes seem to have missed out.  The LMS were also big on the military.  The Southern Railway’s Schools Class was limited to – naturally – what we in the UK euphemistically call Public Schools (ie. fee-paying and private).  Interstingly, the less patrician LNER mainly used birds of a certain stature (like Mallard, the world speed steam loco speed record holder), successful racehorses and football teams.

So it was left to the post-war British Railways Standard Classes, specifically the Britannia express locos, to fly the flag for a wider cultural heritage (writers like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Chaucer, Dickens & Co) and, as we have seen, ‘God’s Englishman’, Oliver Cromwell.  Was it a coincidence that this principle was established under the same socialist Attlee government that set up the National Health Service?  The Standard Classes, intended by the newly nationalised British Railways to fill the motive power gap left over from the Second World War, were probably a mistake – they should have gone straight for diesel or electrics, like the rest of the developed world – but at least many of the Britannias reflected a pride more fitting to a democratic nation than kowtowing to the aristocracy.  Rant over.

Midford - Derek Cross

With the high-sided tender – Derek Cross at Midford.

BR Standard Steam Locomotives (Ian Allen, 1983), Brian Stephenson‘s anthology selected from the annals of Locomotives Illustrated magazine, is a decent enough collection of photos of all said classes of locomotives in a wide variety of working situations.  Over the years I have come to appreciate this group of locos – that as a trainspotter I always saw as a clumsy appendage to the individualities of the glory days of the old regional companies – as a worthy practical and handsome summation of British locomotive design and manufacture.  The book kept me (to quote myself: “I’ll admit I trainspotted / In the boys time allotted” though I’ve never owned an anorak) interested enough on that level – it never leaves you – and it was thankfully devoid of the more arcane grin or cringe inducing notes that can often accompany the photos in such publications.  Indeed, I am thankful for its demonstrating to me the aesthetic advantages of the larger capacity, higher-sided BR1D tenders, as opposed to the angular cut away BR1As.  You can see the difference in the two photos I have filched (scanned, treated a bit in PSP) and included here.

Nr Penmaemawr - Kenneth Field

Near Penmaenmawr – Kenneth Field

No, my problem with British railway photography in general is that it’s big on railways but not great at Photography with a capital P – the American O.Winston Link (just put him into Google images) is the benchmark here.  Some of this is down to the equipment that was available to enthusiasts in the most atmospheric of railway eras – colour only readily available only right at the end of steam – and some down to vision.  Not fair to bring this up, really, in this instance, because the standard 45° shots of engines – albeit taken from a variety of heights – that constitute the majority of photos here are what this volume is all about.  But the inclusion of Kenneth Field’s lovely composition (only a half plate in the book unfortunately, because its sharpness doesn’t bear enlarging) gives us a bigger picture of the railway in a social as well the conventional landscape, life’s rich tapestry.

John Hegley - Family packJohn Hegley had a platform ticket

Poet and comedian John Hegley was a trainspotter too:

is the happy shunter hunter
any more insane
than the lot who’ve not got jotters
who spot the spotty spotters
with disdain?
we’re looking forward to our crusty rolls
we’ve got platform tickets
and platform souls

Another charity bookshop purchase, His combined volume of early work, The family pack (Methuen, 1996), has been my bath-time reading of late.  [Bath-time reading rules: has to be an old desiccated paperback (new books steam makes the pages swell); never a library book].  Of course I’d been aware of him – tv and radio spots, the odd poem in the press and anthologies – and always thought I’d check him out further one of these days.  And he’s not the only person I’m aware of with a passion for Luton and its football team.  Reading him in bulk, on the page, imagining the distinctive voice, the quality is more variable than I expected, but when he’s good he’s great.  Have to say I liked The brother-in-law and other animals, his first, originally self-published collection of 1986, best – just the titles, never mind the actual poems: His heart’s in the wrong place, it should be in the glove department just defeating ditto in the dustbin; a different kind of muse.  Can I come down now Dad? (1991) wrings humour from an unhappy childhood among many other things, but I was flagging by These were your father’s (1994).  Never mind second album syndrome, the third book includes a plodding and inconsequential 32 page playlet called A tale of two tenting that for me makes Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May (you remember – folk singer Candice-Marie) sound like Shakespeare.  It won’t stop me picking up and opening any of John’s later books if they happen to fall into my path, though.

Has anyone ever encapsulated upward social mobility better in two lines than Hegley in his Luton?:

I remember Luton
as I’m swallowing my crout’n

Of dulcimers, the Italian campaign and other musical adventures

Roddy at the Crown Stony Stratford’s magical musical square mile.

The Roddy Clenaghan Band ended their immaculately chosen and beautifully performed and sung set of songs – from Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle among others – with a driving version of Things have changed, the song Bob Dylan has been opening with at the Albert Hall on the current installment of his never-ending tour.  Andy Knight gave the accordion his grandfather bought in Italy, coming back from the war, an outing on one number, while Andy Fenton’s pedal steel was a delight.

Vaultage late Oct 15

Yes, it’s the wrong poster but Jimtom Say – he in the poster – is who I’m talking about, and Pat posters retrospectively.

Scribal Oct 2015Don’t think anyone had tried the active loop tape technique there before that Jimtom Say put it to good use at mid-month Vaultage.  Guitar still in hand he recited poetry over the resulting backing, while his songs, robustly individual, were equally absorbing.  Something different.  Meanwhile, earlier in the week Scribal Gathering had seen a plethora of poets outnumbering the music either side of the as ever entertaining Rrants takeover.

Beechey Room Sessions 4

Archivist note: unfortunately Paul Bell was unable to attend.

BeecheyRS Pat

Photo (c) Pat Nicholson

End of a busy week and so to the relaxed delights of another fine Beechey Room Session at York House on a Saturday afternoon.  Not that energy was not embraced in the performance.  Paul Martin (that’s him with his mandocello in the photo) also brought along a dulcimer, the first, I suspect that I’ve ever heard in the flesh – a captivating sound, made me think I’ll dig out that Richard & Mimi Farina album again.  Original canal songs from Phil Underwood and I can’t for the life of me remember what Michelle did (but it was all very fine).

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Come the late ’90s and, as a family, we put away childish things, there were three common cultural denominators (notice I did not say lowest) that we – a couple of baby boomers and two teenage boys – shared:

  • There was competition for the latest Fortean Times that landed at the doormat each month, though we were coming at it from different directions.  I always maintained that the magazine’s credo was a basic scepticism – hey, it can rain frogs, and as that soliloquary man said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophyincluding the phenomenon of the rubbish that some people can believe and actively espouse – whereas the lads were True Believers in UFOs and conspiracy theories (probably just to piss us off).  They were Muldur to our Scully.
  • Actually, better make that four: The X-FilesSuspense, wit, and – more than anything else – charisma.
  • There was the genius of The Simpsons, pretty much from the start, never mind the late ’90s, whether the kids got half the nuances or not.
  • And then there was R.E.M.

I’d pretty much given up on the post-Golden Age NME by the time they’d become the critic’s cult band, so the first I heard of R.E.M. was on a mix-tape of new music made for me by one of the Young Turks at work (I’d done him one of ‘old’ music).  From starting as a Saturday assistant in a small London branch library, and, single-handedly reducing the age profile of the libraries football and cricket teams significantly, he rose through the ranks and, these days, I gather he’s something in the City of London Corporation, but never mind that.  (I see now how he actually looked a bit like the young Michael Stipe).  The countryish jangle that is Don’t go back to Rockville was the track, and it stood out as embracing all the classic virtues and none of the vices that Punk had critiqued.  It still sounds singalong great today.  At the time I took Rockville to have symbolic status – signifying the boring excesses of the pre-Punk mid ’70s music industry.  Turns out it’s a real place and the band were advising, nay, pleading with a friend not to give up and go back home, one of the few directly autobiographical songs in their oeuvre.  But I jump ahead of myself.

2006_02_arts_stipeOver the years, one way or another, in an unsystematic fashion, we acquired a lot of R.E.M. CDs, without knowing too much about them, the place of specific albums in their story etc.  It wasn’t, strangely enough, until the less than overwhelmingly well received Up (1998), that I’d borrowed from the library and was utterly entranced by, that I actually bought an album anywhere near its release date.  Its successor, the superb Reveal (2001), was the soundtrack of our this year’s week in the Lake District and it has only recently dawned on me just how high the band stand in my music pantheon, and yet how little I actually knew about them at all.  What I did know, from watching a performance on telly, was that shaven-headed singer Michael Stipe in his live pomp was interesting enough to compellingly get away with that ridiculous blue eye/wraparound head superhero make-up.

Part liesThe title of an early band biography – Talk about the passion – taken from one of their early songs, sums up their work well.  Aside from the obvious musical qualities, what sets them apart is a powerful combination of intensity and oblique detachment, an immediacy of engagement obscured by often surreal lyric flourishes, even when it’s possible to decipher them.  Tempted by the charity shop price I bought Part lies part heart part truth part garbage 1982-2011 – the 2-DC chronologically curated career retrospective – new for a fiver, hard to resist even though I already had many of the songs.  Never mind that deliberate smokescreen of an album title (no smoke without fire?) and the simple graphics on the cover, here is richness indeed.  No slouches, of course, to begin with – only Gardening at night, that could be many another bands’ finest hour – but the growth in their confidence, competence and power as that first CD unfolds is astonishing.

Jovanovic StipeREM Inside outIf one was looking for clarity Craig Rosen‘s R.E.M. inside out: the stories behind every song (Carlton, 2005) could be said to be disappointing, were it not for the band’s unique power to be located in the spaces of meaning in between, if precise meaning there be, or in sly undercurrents.  Pretentious, moi?  While Stipe can be quoted as saying, “People need to realise that there’s potential for a great deal of nonsense involved … That’s a crucial element in pop songs” the seriousness of the band’s project cannot be doubted.

Rosen’s competent cut-and-paste job, a decent piece of work overall, is good in showing how the band worked up its material, the musicians presenting Stipe with a template needing melodic input and, crucially, a lyric and vocal.  Stipe is the one who makes the difference, more than just as frontman.  Here’s an excerpt from one of my favourite entries concerning the glorious, um, exultation that is the song The one I love, one I’d wondered about (what is it that does go “out to” its subject?) but never really given much hard thought to:

Despite a lyric that appeared to be clear and simple, Stipe once again had a trump card up his sleeve, and naturally many once again missed the point. Following the dedication in the song, Stipe dismisses the one he loves as “a simple prop” to occupy his time. “It’s that old cynical voice roaring up again,” he said.

“It’s a brutal kind of song, and I don’t know if a lot of people pick up on that,” he told Steve Pond in Rolling Stone. “But I’ve always left myself pretty open to interpretation. It’s probably better that they just think it’s a love song at this point, I don’t know. That song just came up from somewhere and I recognised it as being real violent and awful. But it wasn’t directed at any one person. I would never, ever write a song like that. Even if there is one person in the world thinking this song is about me, I could never sing it or put it out.”

The misinterpretation of the song, which was performed regularly on the 1986 Pageantry tour, stunned Stipe, who recalled performing the song in concert. “Last night I sang it and this couple two rows back looked at each other lovingly and held hands,” he said to Bill Flanagan in Musician. “I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ “

What does it say about me that I had no idea Orange crush on Green was ‘about’ the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, where Stipe’s father served, or that Crush with eyeliner on Monster was about the New York Dolls.  Was I alone in this?  Does it matter given they intrigue so and sound so good, even in ignorance?  Elusiveness is one of the strengths, I’d say, of the R.E.M. package.

I knew serial popular music biographer Rob Janovic‘s work from his decent mostly cut-and-paste job on The Kinks (God save The Kinks, 2013) so I was expecting to be able to fill in a few gaps in my knowledge with his Michael Stipe: the biography (Portrait, 2006) and – proving how little I knew – I got a lot more than that.  He paints a portrait of a decent man who, for all his success, while playing a media game, has stayed true to his art and conscience, escaping the temptations if not the limitations of celebrity.  I had no idea just how big a deal R.E.M. were globally at the height of their popularity (early ’90s, Out of time and Automatic for the people), with the surprising achievement of both critical – because they never compromised their seriousness – and commercial acclaim.  Not forgetting the political and environmental campaigning.

One thing that immediately struck me was, as it happens, the parallels between Michael Stipe and The Kinks’ Ray Davies (a big interest here on Lillabullero, in case you haven’t noticed), in what sets them apart from their contemporaries:

  • Stipe’s continued allegiance to Athens, Georgia, where R.E.M. started , and to his family cf. Ray Davies and North London and Muswell Hill, and the Davies clan.  (Jovanovic’s description of that local Athens scene is superbly done)
  • that both, although they never finished their formal courses, have continued to pursue the interests that engaged them in Art College beyond the confines of a career in rock; Stipe mainly with photography, video and film, and Davies agin with film, and theatre.  (I’d hope for a memoir from Stipe in the future, that would be at least as unorthodox as Ray’s X-Ray.)
  • it’s the song not the singer; although some of Davies’s work has subsequently proved to have specific reference points, both – Stipe is adamant about this – have had occasion to emphasize that they write from inside a character of the song’s invention.  Neither write direct love songs.
  • I don’t write autobiographically, and I never have, but there’s something in there, as an observer, as a voyeur, taking in the world around me, breathing it in and really observing, which is what I do best.’ – who?  Stipe.
  • Stipe’s lyrics, like Davies’s, drop cultural references all over the place.  If time was infinite I’d contemplate doing what I’ve already done here at Lillabullero for Davies and the Kinks, logging and expanding on the people, real and imaginary, listed in their songs.

Michael Stipe is a fascinating man.  Though to all intents and purposes he’s a rock star – and R.E.M. undoubtedly a great rock band – he’ll try not own up to it as any big deal.  When he sings “Hey, kids, rock and roll” in the song Drive (on Automatic for the people) it’s no unambiguous affirmation (though, it is a nod to David Essex), and he invariably sees himself as a popular music entertainer:

‘It was always embarrassing to me that when I was in a room with either Clinton of Gore, or for that matter the Dalai Lama, they’ve got better things to do than hanging around with pop stars,’ said Stipe. ‘But I’ve got something they want, or something that can help them with their mission.’

Here he sums up why R.E.M. were so good:

‘If I can just turn off my thinking brain long enough to allow that unconscious voice to do all the work, then I wind up with the 55 minutes of music that comprise a new record. It’s OK for them to be nonsensical. You tell me what Bob Dylan is singing about. I don’t know. Some of the best songs in the world don’t make any linear sense whatsoever. Perhaps the best songs don’t. So it doesn’t have to have a narrative or follow a train of thought that makes any sense at all. It just has to be good and make you feel something when you hear it.’

And here’s a neat presentation of the problems that can bring:

‘It seems like I’m being chased by an ever-growing contingent of over-30 rock writers who want to delve into my psyche and try to pull out all these philosophical breaking points for this century,’ said Stipe at the time [the Reckoning album; he was 24]. ‘To my mind, if there’s anything to what I’m writing, if it goes beyond nonsense and piecemeal phrases, it’s exactly what they felt when they were my age and maybe never wrote it down or had any way to vent, to get it out. I just have this medium, a band, and I’m able to get it out.’

Why do novels and films about made-up musicians, or indeed creative artists of any medium, not stand a chance?  Because you could not make up a 15-year-old Stipe, living with his parents in Athens, Georgia, reading about all this interesting stuff happening in New York, and then he gets his hands on Patti Smith‘s Horses on the day of it release.  So he gets home from doing a pin-money late shift, and …

… sat in the living room, in the dark, with the headphones on. […] I had these crappy headphones on, and I sat up all night listening to Patti Smith and eating this bowl of cherries going, “Oh shit”, “Holy fuck”, and then I was sick. I was very impressionable, very gullible. I heard Horses and it gave me, you know, I had this secret and I was afraid to tell anyone about it. I didn’t think anybody would accept it. It gave me incredible strength and I knew immediately that that’s what I wanted to do.’

And 20 years later he’s tagging along photo-documenting backstage with his mate Patti Smith for the ten dates she’s only the support act for Bob Dylan; she’s there at Dylan’s personal invitation, her live performance comeback after her husband’s death.  Stipe publishes Two times intro: on the road with Patti Smith and next year she’s accompanying him on E-Bow the letter on the New adventures in hi-fi.

Plenty of miles to go from there, but I’ll sign off now with just a few random observations:

  • Stipe risked the wrath of the grammar nazis by omitting the apostrophe for the Lifes rich pageant album in 1986 because no great rock album ever had an apostrophe in its title.  [Now there’s a challenge.]
  • KrazyKat7Further proof of his cultural astuteness: while I’m no fan of tattoos, I am impressed that he’s had one done featuring George Herriman’s Krazy Kat cartoon, an American newspaper strip of genius that ran for nearly 30 years from 1916.  (Do yourself a favour: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krazy_Kat; there’s a huge archive at http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/browse/results?title=1)
  • For some years in the ’90s I was a member of a pretty good quiz team.  We went out with a different team name each season, one of the best being The Bleeding Gums Murphy Appreciation Society (and here we are back with The Simpsons again).  One of the encounters from those enjoyable evenings that has stuck in my mind, is of talking, after the match had finished, with a young man from the opposing team, who was saying he’d seen R.E.M. at a small club gig in Dunstable – must have been when they were recording Fables with Joe Boyd – and chatted with them afterwards.  There is local nuance to be relished in there – Dunstable is seen as basically just a traffic jam waiting to happen any time on the A5 –  but I do so wish that I could say that.
  • One of my favourite moments – the beautiful noise and the timing – in all of music is Peter Buck’s rapid guitar chord intervention What’s the frequency, Kenneth? on Monster, that first appears 42 seconds in, and at various stages subsequently throughout.  Great track and a rather wonderfully odd official video.
  • And, going backwards in time, here’s the young Michael Stipe with hair.  Toodle pip!
    Michael Stipe when youngStipe 1

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