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Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

The Bardic Trials

And it came to pass that Stony’s got a brand new Bard.  All hail poet Sam Upton!  Crowned (or rather, cloaked) after an absorbing contest with accomplished storyteller and laidback one-time Texan Lynette Hill at York House Centre.  Tellingly, Sam delivered his statement of Bardic Intent acknowledging the tradition and the work of previous holders of the post in verse form.  Shame there were only two up for it this year, but it was a good contest, and a fine evening’s entertainment was put together by the Bardic Council and outgoing Bard – Bard 007 Mr Stephen Hobbs – nevertheless.  Sam will have a hard job to match Steve’s work rate.

Fay Roberts held a buzzing audience still and entranced with a poem delivered entirely in Welsh – I add No, really! for those who’ve never seen her – while Northampton’s Bard Mitchell Taylor‘s was an energetic (with much poetic striding) and passionate set, by turns personal and political.  Original stuff from singer-songwriter from Dawn Ivieson, in fine voice.  Professional comedian James Sherwood finished the evening off in style.  He had me in stitches, not least when – sat at and playing keyboard – singing and raging against the mathematical inexactitude all too often found in popular songs.  Wish I could remember some culprits other than 50 ways to leave your lover (in which just 5 are listed); there was that Cher song …

The Pantomime

The Stony Stratford Theatre Society‘s 3rd annual panto,  Dick Whittington in Stonyland was a hoot, with all the traditional trimmings, complete with plenty of nods to the locality and no little originality from playwright (and Principal Boy) Danni Kushner (no surnames on the handout, no surnames here … except this one … for the writer).  Great ensemble performance (Oh, yes it was), invidious to single out etc etc (Oh, no it isn’t), because as Dame, troubadour Roddy’s Sally the Cook is already legend; not bad for a first acting role – “Oh, you won’t believe your eyes / at the size of Sally’s pies.”  Another first was Danni singing solo – who knew there’s a folk singer in there as well?  [Photos © Denise Dryburgh]

The Talk

Sarah Churchwell, prof of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the Uni of London, delivered a bit of an eye-opener at the Library for those who think of Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby as rooted in, and symbolic of, the Jazz Age.  No.  As she enthusiastically demonstrated, published in 1925, almost as a warning, it is pointedly and set in 1922,  highlighting with some telling slides what was in the news that year, and suggesting 1922 was to the celebrated Jazz Age what 1962 was to Swinging Sixties.

She expanded her subject to look at anti-immigrant origins in the 1920s of the first America First movement, and its links with the KKK.  I almost bought the book, though I have piles waiting to be read at home, she’s that charismatic a performer.  We didn’t have lecturers like her back in the day.

This talk, along with a handful of others, and various other events that I didn’t make it to – and those I did, above and below –  were all part of the programme of the splendid 14th Annual StonyWords literary festival.

Roger McGough. Photo © Andy Powell, who seemed to be everywhere, sound engineering and performing: so here’s a thumbs up.

That Roger McGough

Tickets for Roger McGough at York House were sold out even before the StonyWords programme was printed.  Resplendent in red sneakers he delighted a packed crowd with material that was new to the vast majority of the audience (and certainly to me).  Refreshingly none of the greatest hits were called upon; at the age of 80 he’s a sprightly and dapper performer, and still writing.  [One, um, golden oldie, Let me die a young man’s death cites the ages 73,91, and 104.  Not as much a hostage to fortune as Pete Townshend’s “Hope I die before I get old” in the Who’s (and their middle-aged tribute bands’) My generation, but then, they still do that. ]

Saying he was often accused of being ‘too sentimental’ he went out of his way to disabuse that with a neat reworking of one piece.  He was very funny, but at the same time, with a broad-ranging selection of an hour’s worth of material, not afraid to give us pause for thought.  I did succumb here, bought the autobiography.

This StonyMusicHall4

The Prince of Wales Rattlers. Photo © Andy Powell

Even without The Prince of Wales Rattlers, special guests from over the Northamptonshire border closing the show, StonyMusicHall4 would have been a grand affair.

What did we have?  With various multi-talented members of the Stony Steppers never far away we had: a sand dance, a recitation, a  clog dance (Daisy), singalong Vera Lynn, Whispering grass (from Two Men not called Matt, with accents slipping), a surreal chorus line dance routine involving half black/half white costumes, Mr Ferneyhough and concertina implanting an earworm (“With her ‘ead / tucked / underneath her arm“), some stunning slapstick choreography on If I was not a clog dancer, and … an act I’ve forgotten, I fear; sorry, please do tell.

The Rattlers started off with a couple of temperance hymns.  Too late, the barrels were empty.  Then continued with material more from the folk than music hall tradition but fully the latter in spirit, (and they elided somewhere in there historically anyway (didn’t they?)).  Great four-part harmonies, a moveable feast of musical accompaniment, a fine comedic turn, much jollity.
And so home with a big grin all over one’s face.

Them Theatre pop-ups

Caught one of these – the Light Programme, as opposed to the Dark Programme – in the Library.  A selection of rehearsed readings from a shifting cast of members of the Stony Stratford Theatre Society including a couple of Alan Bennett monologues, a bit of Bard and another old dude, excerpts from Alan Ayckbourn, the Stoppard Rosencrantz and Wossname, and a surprising piece (well, to me) from Chekhov that I wish I could remember*.  Good show, Caz & Co.

*The sneeze; the evils of tobacco – thanks Caz.

 

 

 

 

 

Pop-up theatre in the library

 

 

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Scribal: The last hurrah!

A fine if occasionally damp-eyed Last Hurrah! at the passing of Stony Stratford’s Scribal Gathering, the open-minded open mic‘ that has welcomed ‘poets, musicians and all performers of any style, genre or level of experience, to share their creativity before a warm and receptive audience‘ once a month for nearly nine years now.  Your humble host here at Lillabullero was not the only performer on the night to salute Scribal for getting their writing and performing asses into – or back into – gear over the years, not least two (or was it three?) former Bards of this parish.  

It has been enormous fun and a lot more.  I think my first Scribal was on its first birthday and I’ve only missed a couple since through illness.  I’ve made some friends and seen some great (and, naturally, not so great) local performers (both nascent and experienced) and the featured guests have included a sparkling array of performance poets, spoken word artists, musicians and singer-songwriters of wider repute.  No time now for a chronicle or arbitrary list, but I can’t not mention frequent visitors The Antipoet.

Immediate reason for its disappearance, in the words of current prime mover Jonathan JT Taylor – for whom a massive vote of thanks – who’s been there from the beginning: “Our venue, The Crown will not be opening on a Tuesday this year and I can’t find another suitable venue. I have tried holding the event on a Wednesday in the past but it doesn’t work, so I’m putting the event on hold for now.”  (The Crown is now a gastro-pub, so understandable, I guess, if no-one’s eating of a Tuesday). 

JT goes on: “Personally I feel the spark has gone from the event. It’s had a good innings – nearly nine years! So it’s not a goodbye, it’s a so long and thanks for all the fish…”  Yeah but, no but: while it could no longer maintain the manic energy of what, I guess, must be called ‘the Richard Frost years’ – how could anything? – and there weren’t so many fresh surprises, Scribal could still be the best and most creative show in town, and usually was.  So thanks again to JT and the Scribal Elves and all their hard work.  Mind, there’s the small print (see the poster); not so much Adios as Au revoir?

The Last Hurrah was a grand way to go out, with the welcome return of a featured guest who markets himself as ‘The Rutland Troubadour‘ and gets away with it in some style.  The personable Paul McClure has some fine songs of his own at his disposal – Americana-ish and more – which he punctuates with good-natured and self-deprecatory wit and wisdom.  (Check out more at: http://www.paulmccluremusic.com/  – go to ‘Film’ to hear some music including the one that goes, “I just want to play / the best version / of the simplest song / I could find / in my heart / that’s true”  – or on YouTube)

The Robot Orchestra

Spent an absorbing hour wandering around the members of the orchestra then being still and wandering around again at Stuart Moore’s Robot Orchestra pop-up installation at the Stantonbury Gallery.  I’ll let Stuart explain:

The Robot Orchestra members are a diverse collection of modified cyborg instruments and sound objects ranging from antique church organ pipes to digital-control-auto-feedback guitars. They will be performing a microtonal soundscape composition who’s non-western notes are sourced from nature to explore the bigger world of fluid unnameable harmony that exists between the gaps.

Meditative, intriguing, sounds swelling, ebbing, flowing, birdsong weaving (was that a frog?), therapeutic and more.  Given Stuart also drums with my favourite local band – The Box Ticked, if you’re asking – one has to revise all those old drummer jokes.  More here at Stuart’s website: http://stuartmooresound.wixsite.com/stuartmooresound – go to ‘Some sounds’ to get the feel of it.

Centurion Vaultage

Yup, a hundred Vaultages down and, it is to be hoped, many more to come.  Take a bow Pat ‘the Hat’ Nicholson, MC and troubadour of this town.  Long may you run and your silver hair hang down.  If there were a recording of his almost talking blues A day in the life (not the actual title) chronicling him greeting the day and taking a stroll up and down the High Street with his dog, then I would provide a link right here, right now.  But there isn’t, so I can’t.  Watch this space.  Anyway, a poet-friendly open mic still thriving, though it can be hard waxing lyrical when the other non-Vaultage end of the pub is lively.

Couple of quickies

Was it the third or fourth Wassail, waking up the apple trees at York House?  Lovely little event, the miserable rain stopping just in time for open air frolics and mulled cider drinking, though too damp for the bonfire this year.  The ever resourceful Innocent Hare carousing, nay wassailing.

And All Hail the New Bard!  Congratulations Sam Upton.
More about this grand event in another post.

Vintage Stony 2018

Now in its ninth year, so surely worthy of the description ‘traditional’, Stony Stratford’s New Year’s Day Vintage Car and Motorcycle Festival opened to fair weather and more cars and visitors than I can remember.  Seemed to be more really ancient vehicles this year, but overall (or am I getting jaded?) more quantity than Wow! quality.  Out of nowhere – it wasn’t forecast – the unkind weather changed to a vicious cold rain; felt for those who didn’t see it coming.  Early birds, we were lucky, home back in time to be safely tucking into hot chocolate.
Click on the photos (all ©DRQ) for an enlargement.

Not for the first time, this 1934 Citroen Traction Avant (built in Slough!) was my favourite in show, seen here with self-portrait with camera. I got a bit hung-up with reflections, especially of trees:

 

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Well … some of it is down to slothdom and procrastination, and some of it is down to events and body stuff, but the blog Lillabullero hereby makes a furious try (that’s furious as in quick rather than anger) at catching up:

La Belle Sauvage

Hugely exciting, I was swept along by the perilous escape by boat that gives it its title, at the core of La Belle Sauvage (David Fickling, 2017).  Left me both soaring and floundering as to what to read next, like … bring on the second volume of The Book of Dust – right NOW! – please Philip Pullman.

Like its predecessor His dark materials trilogy, this one is full of ideas and charm – and good advice for teens – as the battle of the good guys against the bastards in the parallel universe land of Brytain is played out.  Pullman gets to champion public libraries again too.

I’d forgotten about the totemic daemons on everyone’s shoulders or thereabouts, and how until their ‘owners’ grow up they are changelings, a fascinating notion.  Here Lyra and Pantalaimon are only 6 months old, but we are assured the new trilogy is an ‘equel’ – more than a prequel.

It may be over 500 pages long, but it’s an easy read with a lot of dialogue to drive it along, and it is, after all, a children’s book, but it easily transcends that (unlike Potter).  It boasts a generous cast of characters of all shades, one of whom, Hannah Relf, is a librarian, and some lovely nod and a wink asides:

Hannah ate her sandwich slowly … and reading a book. It was nothing to do with work; it was a thriller, of the sort she liked, with a mysterious death, skin-of-the-teeth escapes, and a haughty and beautiful heroine whose function was to fall in love with the saturnine but witty hero.

Nothing like the resourceful 11-year-old Malcolm and the feisty 15-year-old Alice at the heart of La Belle Sauvage, then.

The shock of the fall

I liked the fiction of Nathan Filer‘s  The shock of the fall (Harper Collins, 2013) being a neat pile of writings and documents left for someone to find in the vacated, due for demolition, building that had recently housed Day Care Centre in which the writings’ author and subject had begun a road to recovery (probably).

19-year old Matthew Holmes’ journey – I won’t go into specifics, but they are not without interest – through a troubled childhood into a schizophrenic breakdown, leading to hospitalisation and then out into care in the community, is presented typographically as a mix of pages tapped out on an old typewriter or printed out at the Centre (with the odd bit of concrete poetry), interleaved with increasingly concerned hand-written letters from his social worker, and a friend’s drawings.  He describes himself at one stage as being “hunched over a typewriter, staining paper with family secrets“, while in the printouts he will comment to and on whoever’s looking over his shoulder at the PC; there are a lot of nice touches and self-deprecation like that in his voice).

I have to say that though I’m a fan of slow reveal narratives this one struck me as a bit too slow, and repetitive with it.  Nevertheless, and even through a certain reek of the university Creative Writing Department about it (the mirroring of two key events in particular), in the end I was moved by Matthew’s tale, and his Nanny Noo’s faith.  A broader appreciation of The shock of the fall grew after a Book Group meeting in which someone with experience both as a mental health worker and client bravely put things in the book in context with their experience.  Book Groups can be a splendid things!

But I really wanted to be an anthropologist

I turned out to be an illustrator, but I really wanted to be ...” is how Margaux Motin kicks off this collection (Self Made Hero, 2012; translated Edward Gauvin) from her French language cartoon blog.  I had a great time with it.  Her reflections on motherhood with two demanding children and a trimly stubbled partner run a gamut from ennui (she draws a great bored face) through to girlish delight, taking in a (sorry to be repeat myself) self-deprecatory love of life, a touch of filth and a lot of finely detailed shoes.

On the right here there’s an extract from the page headed ‘A few things you should know about me’.  There’s an adept use of colour, used in a variety of ways.  Despite the consistency of line, as I turned the pages there was no danger of being over familiar with a sameness of style and approach.

Experience the sheer joy of this double-page spread and know that it’s only half way through, with a punchline to come:

Mentioned in despatches:

These I was at, and another day might have got a lot more attention, in particular the splendid Kara (energetic Russian influenced folk from all over, strong vocals, accordion, the wonderful sound of the low notes of the hammered dulcimer – here’s their website) and Five Men Not Called Matt (of whom there are more than 5, and not all men, lustily shantying and more, with subtle support from a solo Roddy Clenaghan), both at York House.  Tim Buckley ably kept the Scribal show on the road in November (where we had the first helping of Richard Frost’s new epic in progress), and there must have been a Vaultage in there somewhere.  Stony Tracks, a local Desert Island Discs derivative, was launched in some style.  Shame to miss the lantern parade and Stony Christmas lights turn on, but needs musted.

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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… to be part of the mass singing along to Like a rolling stone at the 2017 Official Kinks Fan Club Konvention, upstairs in the Dome of the Boston pub in Tufnell Park?  Pretty good!  A surprise sprung on us (and maybe the rest of the band) by Dave Clarke (no, not that one) towards the end of the proceedings.  Little bit of sacrilege does no-one any harm (Eh, Geoff?).

Earlier that same day …

So many people at Euston Station, even midday on a Sunday and the trains mostly running on time.  Down onto the Northern Line to Archway where the Archway Tavern (home of the pub interior featured on Muswell Hillbillies) is out of commission for the time being, but after road remodelling no longer perilously (for pedestrians) sited on its own traffic island; there’s a swish purpose-built cycle lane to the left of the photo.

Has that Guinness clock advert really been there since the Millennium?

And it’s up Highgate Hill on a clear day (past Dick Whittington’s cat, who appears to be eating the paintwork, or trying to escape) on my annual nostalgic stroll (except I had to miss last year, due to a debilitating cold).

I lived in Highgate – nearer the tube station than the Village – when I first moved to London, but spent many a contented hour taking in the pleasures of Waterlow Park, which then boasted an active aviary, and giving Karl Marx a nod in the adjoining cemetery (inscribed on the tomb: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it”), though that bit is no longer open entry.

And so into a very green – the luxuriant grass at least – Waterlow Park.  One year I saw that tree garlanded and a wedding celebration taking place, the married couple dancing in full wedding garb under its bows.  This year the only voices I heard were speaking in foreign tongues.  I’m not complaining; well, I suppose I am – what is wrong with all the natives, eschewing this lovely park on a bright bracing sunny day?

On the way down, on my way out, some remaining leaves for my autumn almanac.  Out onto Chester Road and down the hill to the Boston.  Breaking the habit of a lifetime, I actually pay to check in my coat at the cloakroom; it gets steamy.  Old style real life fandom (if you ignore all those phones recording stuff).  Guinness at £4.90 a pint.  A fiver next year?  I blame Brexit.  This year, with a bow to the demographic, there was more seating – arranged concert style – available (that I don’t use; found a decent column to lean on).

The first North London hosted annual Official Kinks Fan Club Konvention I went to was actually held upstairs in the Archway Tavern, in 1998.  It was a pretty relaxed occasion, there were lots of tables and a chance to chat and meet up with people one had only known till then in the glory – pre-FB – days of Kinks Preservation Society mailing list; first ‘Hi’ to Olga and the two Geoffs.  It stayed there for another three years, until the owners turned the venue into a flash failed disco or night club – whatever.  A new venue was found in the function room of the Boston Arms, one tube stop down, getting so well attended and crowded that for the last few years it has moved upstairs into their Dome venue, with the advantages of a decent stage and sound setup but a bit of a falling off of a sense of community.

The 1998 ticket proudly boasts “with Mick, Nobby, The Baptist [the Muswell Hillbillies veterans] and Dave Clarke (subject to availability)”, the next year’s has them as the Kast Off Kinks; years again later a fan poll would dismiss the suggestion to lose an F.  In those early days it was a pleasingly ramshackle affair, the band agreeing on a list of songs and practising solo up until the day but still working up an emotional storm.  As the years have gone by most of the others who had served (there have been two basic bands) were regularly incorporated into the set, including two of the  backing singers from the Preservation tours.  Of those still alive (most, in fact) only  – somewhat disappointingly – Dave Davies has not been involved.  Dave Clarke ably stands in for the brothers Davies single-handedly; you can find out more about him (including a lengthy mid-career spell in the Royal Navy!) and much else at the Kast Off’s website: http://kastoffkinks.co.uk/

These days the Kast Off Kinks are a working band.  Their website lists a total of 63 other gigs for this year, with 54 already announced for next year.  Nobby (John Dalton) announced his retirement about 5 years ago but still features regularly on bass when Jim Rodford isn’t off with Argent or the Zombies, while Bob Henrit will sometimes dep for original drummer Mick Avory.  The excellent Ian Gibbons is the featured keyboards man (it’s been a while, I think, since The Baptist (John Gosling) was active).  Dave Clarke is ever-present.  They were all involved at some stage on Sunday, still seemingly enjoying one another’s company.  Vocals a bit more shared than they used to be, or was that just more of Ian.  They may be a more polished and rehearsed outfit these days, but there is thankfully still room for a bit of mayhem.

Percussivating organ sounds

Three sets, 41 songs (thanks Olga for the listing), with mutating bassmen and drummers (bit like watching Doctor Who regenerate).  Naturally plenty of the favourites, community singing to the usuals and almost every word of Shangri-La; God’s children too given its due.  Some songs moving towards their own KOK interpretations.  Have to say a jauntily throwaway Muswell Hillbilly disturbed me.  Apparently the very first outing for I’m not like everybody else (mass singing, d’accord).  Some nice train-like embellishments  from Dave’s guitar on Last of the steam powered trains.  Some outstanding keyboard work from Ian throughout: I’ve noted swirling organ on See my friends.  a rousing Better things.  The aforementioned majestic Like a rolling stone.  A joyous rousing Louie Louie with some exciting percussive work from Ian in Hammond organ mode, an epic Long Tall Sally.  Great playing all round.  And goodnight (or at least good evening – it’s an afternoon gig).

Oh yes, and somewhere in there, Ray Davies makes an appearance, in good voice for – this year – a whole You really got me, and graciously praising and thanking the Kinks Fans Kollektiv, who on Friday and Saturday nights had graced two pubs with their Kinks tributes.  It was good to meet again with Dave Emlen, proprietor of the long-running – practically from the birth of the Web! – Kinda Kinks website.  And, of course there was the traditional Dedicated follower of fashion vocal from Mick Avory, the gold lame jacket shed for a superhero themed number.  There’s a bootleg Kinks instrumental – basically a blues shuffle – goes by the title Mick Avory’s underpants.  There was a guaranteed pair of Mick Avory’s shorts (cries of ‘Shame’) on offer in the auction, went for a tidy sum.  As did  the other wares in same.  The whole shindig supports the Childhood Leukemia charity.  Bill Orton and the Official Kinks Fan Club committee are to be thanked once more for their sterling efforts (a currency that has not been devalued).

So many people at Euston again.  Home again in time for Blue Planet.  Thanks to other Geoff for directing me to this, for which I am grateful – as maybe you, dear reader, will be too:

 

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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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Mixed reception for Carl Hiaasen’s Stormy weather (1995) at September’s Book Group, meeting as it did in the immediate aftermath of the far from fictional Hurricane Irma, which provided a bit of context.  It was a re-read for me, but I was happy to do it.  Some thought the book ‘over the top’, which really, it has to be said, for Carl Hiaasen, rather misses the point.  Given Donald Trump’s political ascendency and his personal and business interests in Florida exactly how much over the top Hiaasen is – a native Floridan, investigative journalism came before the novels – how much he indulges himself becomes debatable.  Here’s a trademark Hiaasenism, taken from Stormy weather’s hurricane’s aftermath, “The death of Tony Torres did not go unnoticed by homicide detectives, crucifixions being rare even in Miami“.   That ‘even in Miami’.  You laughed, right?  Don’t worry, in context it is righteous.

Basically Carl Hiaasen is a moralist, a savage Swiftian humourist with harlequin bells on.  But he is also a relativist, so what happens is that in the end the bad guys usually get it in spades, but the nuanced bad and so not so bad guys and gals can sometimes get the breaks, while the good, suffering, people of his world will lean towards purity of heart if not deed.  His books start out with 5 or 6 people, maybe a couple of them paired up in some way, at a certain stage in their lives – something criminal, new or odd going on therein – whose lives get not so much thrown together as entangled in various ways by a triggering event (in Stormy weather a destructive hurricane) as the narrative unfolds apace with many interesting twists and turns along the way.  Again, some nay-sayers in the Book Group complained that Hiaasen’s characters are stereotypes; they may well be, but they are also magnificent living and breathing examples of their kind, complete with quirks and the potential to surprise; like, um, skull juggling.

Stormy weather also strongly features one of the great creations of late twentieth century literature; this was his third appearance.  Skink, an anti-superhero (not that he’s a force for bad, just no cool costumery or scientific backstory) who, Hiaasen subsequently, I hazard to suggest, resorts to when he needs something to help the plot on its entertaining way, along the lines of Raymond Chandler’s apocryphalWhen in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand“, except he transcends this usefulness to the extent one is disappointed when he doesn’t appear in a Hiaasen novel.  Skink, the ex-politician previously known as Clinton Tyree,  is big enough to have his own Wikipedia entry.

Here he explains himself to a tourist he has kidnapped (there are reasons):

My name is Tyree. I served in the Vietnam conflict and later as governor of this fair state. I resigned because of disturbing moral and philosophical conflicts.   The details would mean nothing to you.

Having failed to change the system from within he has retreated, gone native in the Florida Everglades.  Another kind of Swamp Man, he’d had high hopes of the hurricane.  Here are some of the details:

Clinton Tyree’s only political liability was a five-year stint as an English professor at the University of Florida, a job that historically would have marked a candidate as too thoughtful, educated and broad-minded for state office. But, in a stunning upset, voters forgave Clint Tyree’s erudition and elected him governor.

So far, so good.  But the “barkers, pimps and fast-change artists who controlled the legislature” weren’t unduly worried: “He was, after all, a local boy. Surely he understood how things worked.”  But when he won’t take bribes, they begin to doubt his sanity.  “Save the rivers. Save the coast. Save the Big Cypress. Where would it end?”  He might as well be a ‘damn communist’.  They use every trick in the book to foil him:

So he quit, fled Tallahassee on a melancholy morning in the back of a state limousine, and melted into the tangled wilderness. […] He moved by night, fed off the road, and adopted the solitary existence of a swamp rattler. Those who encountered him knew him by the name of Skink, or simply “captain”, a solemn hermitage interrupted by the occasional righteous arson, aggravated battery or highway sniping.

Imagine a beach or two with no ugly high-rises. Imagine a lake without golf courses,” he suggests towards the end of the tale.  Donald Trump makes an appearance in the capacity of a negative character reference, the kidnapee as it happens, who “was into ditties and jingles, not metaphysics. “And he doesn’t read much,” she added. “The last book he finished was one of Trump’s autobiographies.””  (Trump has ‘written’ more ‘autobiographies’ than David Beckham and Wayne Rooney).

Carl Hiaasen is deadly serious and laugh-out-loud funny.  He can drive a narrative, paint a vivid picture and delivers great dialogue.  Because I’ve given space to Skink here I’ve hardly touched the riches elsewhere to be found in Stormy weather.  He’s a highly quotable phrase maker too: a 160 home housing development (called Sugar Palm Hammocks) is “platted sadistically on only forty acres of land”  (yup, definitely ‘platted’, not ‘plotted’).  The damaging avoidance of building regulations is, someone bemoans, “exactly the sort of thing that gave corruption a bad name.”  How masterful a scene-setter is “after a day of inept drinking“?  Enjoy! 

A Scribal interval

As it happens, poster-girl Naomi Rose had a song called Hurricane in her immaculate October Scribal Gathering set.  She described it as ‘a worksong’.  Contains the lines “Know that you can never be good enough” expanding as the song progresses to “None of us … ”  (Thinks: is she singing about OFSTED investigations here?).  Naomi is a much more than good enough singer-songwriter and an intriguing guitarist.  Hear for yourself with a link https://soundcloud.com/naomi-rose-2/hurricane .  She also did her “song about football” which for all its “Smiling David Beckham’s on your wall” and damnably catchy chorus (says this Arsenal supporter) of “I love you Manchester United / and I would be delighted / to dance with you tonight / for the rest of my life” is not about football.  It’s a challenge i) not to sing along , and ii) not to be tripping the light fantastic in your waltzing head; you might find yourself agreeing if you go to:   https://soundcloud.com/naomi-rose-2/manchester-united .  I’ve said it before: sad (mostly) rainy day songs delivered with a sunny smile, queen of the earworms.  This was a Scribal with a difference, with Pat Nicholson ably MC-ing and Mitchell Taylor ending proceedings in fine voice, songs punctuated with a heartfelt spoken word anti-imperialist flourish.

Doesn’t time fly?

And so October’s Book Group book divided the team too, though thankfully not along the same lines as to Stormy weatherGeoffrey Household‘s extraordinary 1939 thriller Rogue male certainly took me by surprise.  In attitude and feeling it’s a revealing period piece, both cringe-worthy in places yet prescient in others – both ancient and modern, you could say.  As a founding genre classic of the better class of contemporary thriller it has lost none of its power, while retaining all the drive of a simpler enterprise.  One of the Book Group members said she was reminded of the excitement of reading as a child again, engrossed in the adventure.

It’s a first person narrative:

I will not mention who I am. My name is widely known. I have been frequently and unavoidably dishonoured by the banners and praises of the penny press.

That ‘dishonoured’ by the ‘praises’ tells you a lot about our man – sardonic, charming, socially aware.  This is on one level is his confession, decently left in case someone innocent might get the blame (and to let the government off the hook), on another a journal of self-discovery, replete with philosophical meditations and asides on the nation-state and Englishness among other things.  Given his affinity with the land and nature in general, the book’s title, Rogue male, has to take some of its meaning from the wild animal kingdom – the solitary, dangerous animal, adrift from the herd – an ‘anarchial aristocrat’ (yes, ‘anarchial’) as it is put to him at one stage, and he doesn’t demur.

Our man an experienced hunter, is captured in a foreign land with a dictator in his telescopic gun-sights.  Could be Hitler or Stalin; we are never told.  Claiming he was only doing it to see if ‘a sporting assassination‘ was possible.  (Was he really? – you’ll have to read the book).  Interrogation and a punishing, gruelling escape.  In London, accurately guessing that wouldn’t be the end of it, he puts his affairs in order, and goes to ground (literally, in an elaborately constructed burrow) in Dorset.  As if this were not gruelling enough, the agents of the totalitarian state find him and he becomes a prisoner in his own hiding place, interrogated at length, over days, through a ventilation space, with a subtlety out of a John Le Carré novel.  No big spoiler to say he escapes again – some tense moments indeed – and lights out for new territory.  It’s riveting stuff.

But as I say, there’s this weird mix of snobbery and decency, of one-ness with the natural world, and personal detachment.  It’s beautifully written, a wonderful mélange of by turns the calm, charming, candid and disingenuous; keenly literate observation accompanies the  enthralling, gruelling and scornful yet nicely self-deprecating prose.  A few tasters to whet your appetite.  After his first escape:

Glaring back at me from the mirror, deep and enormous,, it seemed to belong to someone intensely alive, so much more alive than I felt. My face was all pallors and angles, like that of a Christian martyr in a medieval painting. – and I had the added villainy of bristles. I marvelled at how such a beastly crop could grow in so poor and spiritual a soil.
[but then later, on a foray to buy materials in Lyme Regis]: 
I had a straggly beard that was quite as convincing as most of those one sees in Bloomsbury.

A couple of Ouch! moments.  Here he considers the ‘modern’ incarnation of the ‘hiker’ :

A hideous word – hiker.  It has nothing to do with the gentle souls of my youth who wandered in tweeds and stout shoes from pub to pub. But, by God, it fits those bawling English-women whose tight shorts and loose voices are turning every beauty spot in Europe into a Skegness holiday camp.
[and here’s another contemporary holidaymaker]: 
She was a sturdy wench in corduroy shorts no longer than bum-bags, and with legs so red that the golden hairs showed a continuous fur. Not my taste at all. But my taste is far from eugenic.  [Did I really just read that? – yes you did.]

Here, a couple more encounters with the common man:

There was a man on the fence, meditative and unbuttoned, and obviously digesting his breakfast while mistaking that process for thought.
[and of a naval man]:
I calmed his suspicions with two double whiskies and my most engaging dirty story, whereupon he declared that I was a Bit of All Right and consented to talk about his officers. [tell us the joke!]

And yet he has interesting things to say about class and class consciousness, and, in settling his affairs before disappearing makes plans to turn over his lands to a ‘Tenants Cooperative Society’.

The edition I read has a worthwhile introduction from by Robert Macfarlane, author of Wild places and another celebrated book on walking the old tracks and pathways, which enhanced my reading (always read such introductions last!).  Our man’s first escape involves resting up in a tree to convalesce: “I was growing to my tree and aware of immense good nature …”.  Then there’s the Dorset experience:

It was a disgusting day. The flats of England on a grey morning remind me of the classical hell – a featureless landscape where the peewits twitter and the half-alive remember hills and sunshine. And the asphodel of this Hades is the cabbage. To lie among cabbages in my own country should have been nothing after the pain and exposure I suffered during my escape, but it was summer then and it was autumn now. To lie still on a clay soil in a gentle drizzle was exasperating. But safe!

Asphodel? – “Old World herbs of the lily family with flowers in usually long erect racemes” the dictionary tells me.  And it’s no fun down in the bunker either: “I have no chance even of illusion. Luck has reached a stage of equilibrium and stopped.”  He befriends a feral cat, who plays a crucial role in his final escape, who he names Asmodeus.

There is a revelation near the end of Rogue male, conjured out of our man down in his wretched temporary abode as his interrogation progresses, but I’m not going say anything more about that other than that it prompts an outbreak of the most wonderful technicolour prose, a passage that is like nothing else in the book.

Rogue male is a great adventure story and so much more.  I leave you with what would be a great exam question for students of twentieth century history – discuss this!  Our man achieves a certain understanding with Quiver-Smith, his interrogator, that deep spy from a totalitarian state with the well-constructed English identity, but:

I didn’t tell him that natural leaders don’t have any will to power. He wouldn’t have understood what I meant.

 

 

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Don’t step on the cracks

Laura Barnett - Greatest hits‘Don’t step on the cracks’ – the title of track 7 on the fictional Cass Wheeler’s soon to be released album, and a suitable warning for this reviewer.  I was on my guard from the first epigraph, a quote from Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks to the effect that “Each song is a lifetime.”  What does that meanThe Green Manalishi maybe, but that was before her time.  So I was looking for cracks from the off.

And nearly stepped right on one.  Opening page functioning as slow and less than riveting camera pan: “In Cass Wheeler’s garden, partitioned from the Tunbridge Road by a series of high dry-stone walls …”  What? I thought. High dry-stone walls?  And in Kent?  A cautionary Google affirms it is so, though, but most of those pictured would appear to be soft-southern dry stone walls, constructed from pre-shaped ‘stones’.  Glad I checked.

Given that Laura Barnett was born in 1982, much of her Greatest hits (W&N, 2017) – cover sub-title The soundtrack of a lifetime – is practically a historical novel; her heroine, the musician, singer and songwriter Cass Wheeler, was born 1950.  You have to take it for granted that no fictional tale of artistic success, no matter in what medium, stands a chance in competing with the twists and absurdities of the ‘real’ life, but on the whole, as far as verisimilitude goes, Greatest Hits makes a decent stab at it, particularly in regard to Cass’s inspirations, first steps in performing, her rise to stardom its maintenance.

At least a couple of factual niggles.  Cass aged 10, in 1960, in her interesting bohemian aunt’s car: “On the drive home, she left the radio on, and they sang along to Lonnie Donegan and Elvis Presley and Ricky Valance as the hedgerows and the fields turned back into the high walls and dusty pavements of the city.”  Radio Luxemburg was hard enough to get a decent signal from under the bedclothes in those well-before BBC Radio 1 days, let alone in a moving car, and in the daytime.  And twice there is specific mention of Milton Keynes when all that existed of our fair city was plans on maps and in architects’ offices : Cass’s partner going off to “a gig the following night in Milton Keynes” (p97); and in their first proper stint in a recording studio, in 1970, they share the green room with: ” … three long-haired guys from Milton Keynes who had yet to settle on a name for their group but were unfailingly generous with their drugs.”  Just saying, like.

The guitar players, by Lairie Lee. A pic to break up the text.

This is the set-up.  Damaged successful singer and writer Cass Wheeler, age 65, hasn’t had anything to do with music for 10 years (“Ten years in which … no music has thrummed from the living room stereo“) after the trauma of her daughter Anna’s death: “Ten long, silent, empty years, of which, after her two internments in the hospital, she had made what she could. Her books, her painting. Black-and-white films in the afternoon, soothing voices on the radio, and long drives with no set destination …”

A friendship with 70-year old Larry, an American sculptor (only Tate Modern, MoMA and Yorkshire Sculpture Park successful), has got her going again.  The plan is to release an album of the songs from her back catalogue that tell her story – not a greatest hits compilation, there have been plenty of them already apparently – along with the new stuff: “… a very particular kind of retrospective. Her life, reflected in the songs that only she, and only she, could choose.”  She’s to spend the day alone in her studio reacquainting herself with these old songs dating back to 1970 onwards, before a party to celebrate her return and air the new songs.  She remembers the events that were behind the songs; oh, of course! – greatest hits at least in part, though only one is not metaphorical.  There is tension in i). whether she’ll be able to cope, and ii). whether Larry will turn up.

For still, Cass asked herself what sort of mother she had been, what sort of wife, what sort of woman. Selfish, troubled, angry, flawed. A woman unworthy of love. A woman who was surely better off alone. A woman who should not allow this man – this good man, this man who was so generous, so honest, so incapable of dissembling – to make the mistake of offering her his heart, and his future.

If he turns up.  I’m not giving it away.  And yes, she is a bit of a drama queen.

Shorn of its musical setting, what we have here is an enactment of Philip Larkin’s This be the verse: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.”  Cass and Ivor, her original musical partner and subsequently husband, both have troubled backgrounds, though at least it means in Cass’s case that she ends up age 10 with a Bohemian aunt and her jazz-loving husband who are players in the burgeoning ’60s scene.  Cass and Ivor also become splendid examples of why having a child is not necessarily the best way to save a marriage.  Not that there wasn’t a whole lotta love there to begin with, as evinced in this quote, to which I add no comment:

It occurred to her that this – their love-making, the easy quiet proximity of their bodies – was also, in its essence , musical. It was as if they were running through a song they already knew: a tune both familiar and strange, in which their voices melded and soared.

Another one to break up the text – Maria Assumpcio Raventos’ The music of the sea.

Cass’s schooldays, early boyfriends and musical development are skillfully handled, though I’m not entirely convinced by her 15-year old’s instant conversion to folk music after Aunt Lily plays her Joan Baez, Shirley Collins, Ewan McColl, and Peggy Seeger records:

And so they listened, sitting before the brick fireplace with a pot of mint tea. The women’s voices were high and breathy and unpolished [Baez?], and sang of maidens and shipwrecks and cruel lords. Cass closed her eyes and experienced the curious sensation that she was drifting back through time, watching lives as they once had been lived.

Though populated with characters from central casting – like all the industry types, really – the North London squat she moves into with Ivor at 17 rings true, and their rise through cellar folk clubs to the heights of American rock stadiums is reasonably done (though the ‘rock journalist’ – just the one – Don Collins is not exactly out of the golden age of the NME).  Then come the conflicts and jealousies, Ivor turning into a rock monster, the disillusionment.  After going to the funeral in New Orleans of a drifter with a guitar on his back who was her first big inspiration, she’s in a bar:

Was there something truer, Cass asked herself as they sat in that tiny, tumbledown room with its bare wooden floors and roughly plastered walls, in the efforts of these men – and the occasional woman – playing for little more than tips and beer, than in the cavalcade her own career was becoming.
         The pomp and pageantry, the peacock strutting and the preening. The driving force of her ambition, her desire to be … what? Listened to? Recognised. Acclaimed. Cass Wheeler – a name to be shouted, whispered, caught in newsprint, each new utterance erasing the last traces of the girl she had once been. The girl lifting a hand to her cheek, still feeling the sharp sting of her mother’s blow. The girl lying awake in the dark, wondering where her mother had gone …

Fair enough.  One would hope there are stellar successful musicians out there who have these moments, though not necessarily the self-hate.

I can’t say I enjoyed reading Greatest Hits, but I did see it through to the end.  As I said earlier, there are few good novels with creative artists at their centre – only Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, Jennifer Egan’s A visit from the goon squad and Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments immediately spring to mind as far as rock music goes.  Greatest Hits format, not so much a slow reveal as a series of hints before the detailed delivery inevitably becomes somewhat repetitive given where the story starts from.  Each episode is punctuated with a page or two of lyrics (pretty good, actually) along with the song’s fictional recording details and credits, down to the engineers involved.  Anna’s story – it was no big spoiler to say earlier that she died – is a harrowing one.  Cass’s return to music after hearing a choir in Canterbury Cathedral – dragged in by her new beau – is both corny and quite moving, and, of course, a scene crying out to be filmed.    Laura Barnett‘s prose can run from the pedestrian, with added superfluous detail (“She replaced the teapot on the tray, afraid that it might fall, scattering its hot contents across the carpet in a wide, seeping stain.”), to the purple.  It’s a brave attempt to tackle a subject that is important to her.  To nod to an early TV music show Cass would have watched as a young teenager: I’ll give it a three.

Cambridge University Botanical Gardens (c) DRQ. Of no relevance, but there is there is an appendix of nitpicking that follows.

While I’m still here, a few indulgent quibbles.  How many books have I published? – none.  And I really should get out more.  Nevertheless.  I know it’s hard to write about music, but I am still baffled by this about being sharp: “She had always instinctively recognised the power of a misplaced sound: flattened or sharpened, anti-chromatic, an interloper in the smooth, sequential pattern of the scale. She was, after all, famous for her idiosyncratic tunings” – not that her tunings had been mentioned up til then.

Then there are some strange uses of language.  It’s hard sometimes to tell whether they are creative writing or crying out for an editor [my italics]: the headmistress’s “warm elocuted voice“; in a café “They refused the buffet“; nipping outside for a fag “she’d been standing in the lee of the studio“; seeing “the Rolling Stones live in Hyde Park” in 1969 (as opposed to miming?); Aunt Lily’s demise through “A stroke sustained quite suddenly in her bedroom” (in a medical textbook maybe); a cathedral’s “buttressed stone” when it seems we are inside the building, with the choir singing in the ‘quire’ (a usage I’ve never encountered before); driving down an “unspooling road“;  and I’m just confused by flowers forming “an Impressionist painting of hazy whites, blues and greens, glossily vivid against the white marble countertop.”

On the other hand I did like: “the flowers that are not from Larry “; and “Deep inside the belly of Heathrow’s terminal three, Larry Alderson stands beside a baggage carousel, watching a string of cases inch by like booby prizes in a game show“.  

But I am very sure – and I speak with recent grandfather experience – that there is no way a one-year old Anna was stacking bricks, rather than gleefully knocking them over; stacking comes much later.

 

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