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The problem with a book like Kent Haruf‘s Our souls at night (Picador, 2015) is that, once you’re familiar with Alice Munro‘s short stories, you can’t help wondering what she might have done with this material, and in considerably fewer pages.  Not that Our souls at night, August’s Book Group book, is that long (192 generously spaced pages) or without its merits.

You’re being too hard on yourself again, Addie said. Who does ever get what they want? It doesn’t seem to happen to many of us if any at all. It’s always two people bumping into each other blindly, acting out of old ideas and dreams and mistaken understandings. Except I still say that this isn’t true of you and me. Not right now. Not today.

A lot of Our souls at night is dialogue, and to its credit, it dispenses, as above, with speech marks.  The language is deadpan – Hemingwayesque without much physical happening – and, well, as some in the group said, flat, but with the dialogue contained, it does have a flow to it, and in the end that develops one’s passion – especially an intense dislike for one selfish young man in particular.  But I jump ahead.

One day in a small town in Colorado, Addie, a 69-year-old widower, turns up at the door of widower Louis, a contemporary and near neighbour she only vaguely knows, and invites him to sleep with her.  Just to share her bed and talk; she’s lonely and she guesses he is too.  He thinks about it and it comes to pass.  They tell one another of their lives, failings and disappointments.  Her son comes along and dumps Jamie, her traumatised grandson on her while he tries to sort out his marriage, and she and Louis slowly draw the child out of himself with the help of a dog.  Son returns and reacts far worse to their arrangement than the community at large (“We’re old news“), plus he’s scared he might lose his inheritance.  That’s not the end of the relationship but it has to change.  Bitter sweet indeed, and it lingers.

It’s all nicely done.  I wasn’t alone in thinking that they seemed older than their stated ages (my age, as it happens), something also I’ve found elsewhere in my reading.  The question of sex does arise, but Haruf doesn’t linger and his handling of it is defly anti-climactic: “After Jamie had left they tried to do what the town thought they’d been doing but hadn’t.” 

The more I think about it, the less I regret (a first impression) having spent the time – it’s an easy read and oh! how one can celebrate short Book Group books! – with Our souls at night. 

All change

It was over 4 weeks ago now, but All change … Stories & Songs of Milton Keynes, the MK50 (Milton Keynes’s 50th anniversary) concert collaboration of the Milton Keynes Community Choir with the Living Archive Band cannot go unmentioned as the stirring event it was.

Both halves of the evening – there was a multitude of cake provided by local Stroke Association volunteers in between, profits going to the charity – followed the same pattern:  The choir opened with three varied and rousing songs (my favourite being God only knows, even though I’m an atheist), then gave the stage to the Living Archive Band for four songs from their extensive repertoire. The choir then performed a couple of interesting excerpts from a new specially commissioned MK50 composition (music by Choir Musical Director Craig McLeish, words from Yaw Asiyama) which is sounding promising indeed.  The choir and band then joined forces for a couple more of the band’s songs – some amazing goose-pimpling moments ensuing.  The evening finished illogically – because they could, said Craig – with them all performing a moving arrangement of Phil Colclough’s beautiful Song for Ireland.  A special night.

The Living Archive is one of the really good things about Milton Keynes.  Easier to let them describe what they do (from the website at http://www.livingarchive.org.uk/):

Living Archive collects, preserves and shares the history and heritage of Milton Keynes. Conceived as an antidote to the assertion that ‘new towns have no history’, and nurtured by the belief that ‘everybody has a story to tell’, it has recorded, archived and celebrated the unique history of residents’ lives and sense of place.

This has meant collecting those stories – through oral history and documentation – of the people who were living in the area before the creation of Milton Keynes, including vivid memories from serving soldiers and those at home from both World Wars, and the development of Wolverton as a railway town.  From this work the shifting membership that is the Living Archive Band have crafted shows full of songs crafted from these memories.

One of these songs has been a not unwelcome ear-worm since the concert.  The night the Stones rolled into town, written by Kevin Adams and Neil Mercer, commemorates a legendary evening in March, 1964, at Wilton Hall in Bletchley (when there was talk of ‘a bigger, brighter Bletchley’ in the days before Milton Keynes).  Here’s the chorus:

And we were living for the future
Glad to be alive
Oh, then one day you wake and find
The future has arrived.

There’s a tinge of sadness in the delivery, with the sensible advantage of the musicians only making a very fleeting nod to the Stones.  You can hear this for yourself at http://livingarchiveband.bandcamp.com/track/the-night-the-stones-rolled-into-town or even buy it for a quid if it takes hold.

An English vineyard

A pleasantly relaxed early Saturday afternoon a couple of week ago with the MK Humanists.  A short entertaining intro, then wandering through some of the 1800 vines, a buffet meal … oh, and sampling the ‘Earls Baron’ produce.  Which was surprisingly good.  Majority favourite was Saxon, the blend (I bought some).

Earls Baron is also the name of the nearby Northamptonshire village where the vineyard is situated.  “Set on a picturesque, southwest facing gentle slope overlooking the Nene Valley”, it says here, “Its location is very near to one of the oldest recorded vineyards of Roman times.”  Which is quite a thought, is it not?

You can find more details, including grape varieties (I think the above is Pinot Noir) at http://www.newlodgevineyard.co.uk/New_Lodge_Vineyard/Home.html .  At the moment they’re updating the website and the history page is missing, so I’ll just quote from the handout.  The vineyard was first established in 2000 on horse paddocks, which apparently is very good for this sort of thing:

Octogenarian owner Joyce Boulos-Hanna and vineyard manager daughter Gabby tend each and every vine personally by hand, all year round, with love and passion.

They are easygoing evangelists for English wine, and great fun with it.  “We’re not going to try and sell you the wine, but if you want to buy some, we’re happy to help you do so.”

 

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Reckless - HyndeCan’t say I understand the rationale of that photo on the dust jacket.  Would certainly be a reckless posture for me to try and then get out undamaged, or at least without pain.  Still, as Sheriff Bo Diddley used to say, You can’t judge a book by looking at its cover. Chrissie Hynde has one of the most distinctive voices in rock music.  I was going to say ‘female voices’, but no, it stands unqualified.  Tough without straining the larynx, and yet tender, spare yet tuneful and full of nuance even in recitative.  She’s written some great songs, too.

In the Prologue to Reckless: my life (Ebury Press, 2015), which takes us from childhood through to the making and release of the Pretenders‘ second album, by which time half the band who made the first remarkable album were dead, she simply states, “I regret half of this story and the other half is the sound you heard“.  This is a stark morality tale, economically yet colourfully related, with none of the poor-poor-pitiful-me about it.  There is humility, for sure, but the woman who wrote Brass in pocket is still abundantly in evidence in the writing, for which we must be grateful.

She certainly gives good zeitgeist, which is just as well because there are plenty of scenes to take in the spirit of.  But there is no grand retreat into sociologese or nostalgia; what we get are sights and sounds.  From an idyllic childhood in the leafy suburbs of Akron, Ohio, via counter-culture America and the killing ground of Kent State University, to heady days at the centre of the punk cyclone in London, with side sojourns in Mexico and Paris, it’s an engrossing story.

Akron may have been the ‘Rubber Capital of the World’, but “for all I knew every town had red brick roads and every fourth house was painted blue …” .  It was changing, though, with the coming of the all-conquering motor car and the six lane highway; no more wandering down the shops.  “When I started to realize that the days of walking were numbered, I subconsciously began to plan my getaway.”  She reads Kerouac at an impressionable age – surely the best time to read him – and wants to be a hobo.  As mammon loomed ever larger: “I was alarmed by the trend, but more alarmed by the fact that no one else seemed bothered“.

Naturally, music is of major importance to her and her mates’ lives, and they are not messing around.  She sees the Stones at age 14, there are trips to see and meet the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a tale about being the only white girls at a Jackie Wilson show.  She puts in a word for Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels to not be forgotten.

Not everyone needed to see the Rolling Stones in the mid sixties, but you could spot those who did a mile off in their modified clothes and carefully studied haircuts. For us elitists it was a chance to catch a rare glimpse of the few who shared our passion …

Reckless‘s back cover boasts this great portrait of the artist as a teenager, caught with guitar and albums in hand: that’s the Rolling Stones’ Out of our heads, and Dylan’s Bringing it all back home precariously balanced there.

CH back coverThe full text the rubric is taken from is a veritable time machine:

We were looking for adventure. We lingered long on Love Street. We had too much to dream last night. We wanted the world and we wanted it now. We were born to be wild. We were stone free. We were stoned. We didn’t think of ourselves as ‘innocent’.

We were taking up philosophies from what we could interpret of the musings of 23-year old guitar players …” she says, (though the Bhagavad Gita has stayed with her).  Then there was the question of her virginity, exquisitely put: It had to be dealt with sooner or later.  And it was getting later.”  Thankfully she doesn’t rub our noses in it, with that or the many subsequent encounters.  (The media storm about rape arose more out of interviews promoting the book, rather than the book itself).

I would like to take a moment to acknowledge that I was now 21 and the drugs had worked their magic on me. I was well and truly fucked up most of the time …”  Recognising her situation – “the unwilling tenant in a badly enacted Howard the Duck rip-off: ‘Trapped in a world he never made.’ […] It was all going in the wrong direction … ” – without having any significant contacts there, she escapes to the musical Mecca of London.  

Players No6Where she quickly adapts in matters of language and manners, discovers miniature cigarettes – hey! Player’s No.6! I used to smoke them – and (jumping ahead a bit) suffers acute “cultural humiliation” when asked by Brian Eno to make a pot of tea.  Fuelled with a big Iggy Pop obsession –  there is a lovely Iggy Pop story much later on in the book – she meets the similarly obsessed (and about to be homeless) NME rock writer Nick Kent, who moves himself piecemeal into her flat.  This is not entirely bad, since through the association she gets a gig writing for NME, though ultimately, to his displeasure, she dumps him: “Well perhaps he shouldn’t have presented me with first scabies, then a virulent strain of something even worse, which had landed me in Hammersmith hospital for three days.”  Later, she sells T-shirts made with Judy Nylon, one-offs, using Magic Marker: “One design I was particularly fond of featured a portrait of Nick Kent on the front and a recipe card for how to cook a turkey on the back.”  Ouch.  Revenge for what he wrote in his memoir of the time, one suspects.

It’s this affair that occasions an interesting bit of philosophising that pretty much sums up the story arc of the book:

That’s how we can be sure we’re not animals, this refusal to abide by what we know is good for us. If an animal’s instinct tells him to avoid something he has no trouble keeping a wide berth. We, on the other hand, run in the direction of danger if it offers a thrill or satisfies a curiosity.

Much has been written about the Golden Age of the New Musical Express, and Reckless offers an entertaining and more nuanced view than most, I would venture, of “the most intelligently observed and humorous of the music papers” as she justly describes it.  “These English weren’t the same as the wasters I’d been used to. They used words like ‘quintessential’ and the occasional phrase in French. […] It hadn’t taken me long to sniff out British versions of artistic types, the con artists I gravitated towards …”  In the pub with the NME crowd, she goes off on one, and the late lamented Ian MacDonald, to whom she pays proper tribute as a ‘true visionary’, invites her to write for them: “My only qualification, had I required one, was that I was as frustrated as the rest of them – a frustrated musician (the cliché of music journalism), opinionated, hungover, illegal in the workplace, devoid of ambition …”   It didn’t take too long for her presence to be felt:

Little teenagers in the sticks like Julie Burchill lapped up my half-baked philosophical drivel and prepared their own versions of nonsensical tirades for the day when they too could make a ‘career’ out of it. I even sold the darling little Julie my typewriter …

She gets offered a job as a shop assistant by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, whose creativity impressed her, but that falls through and she’s off to Paris, making music, being in a band, hanging with cabaret artistes: “I loved it when life opens its arms like that and says, ‘Yes’.”  But then back to the States and more bad times though, again, more experience of being in a band.

London saves her.  Malcolm asks her back as Punk is springing into life.  She tries writing with Mick Jones – “It was a joy to … walk over the bridge carrying my guitar knowing I was doing it, really doing it” – and visits regularly the 11th floor Westway flat where he lives with his gran, who, “would make us beans on toast while we put our song ideas together […] I really looked forward to it, especially the beans on toast part, my favourite English dish.”  She spends time with a shy, funny, yet troubled Johnny Rotten, “wrestling with his impending fame“.  Over the next few months she has a room in Don Letts’ house; Joe Strummer takes it over when she leaves.  She spends time in Croydon with the proto-Damned, might have joined the Slits.  Things go sour, blames Johnny Thunders: “The moment smack arrived it took approximately three weeks for the whole scene to stall and grind to a halt.”  She’s mates with soul brother Lemmy in Ladbroke Grove, a cultural mix she loves.

I, meanwhile, continued to peer out from under bus shelters in the rain, guitar by my side, looking for a band like a hunter having his prey chased away by animal rights saboteurs. […] … everybody was at it. (p209/10)

(Which reminds me: if you were thinking of reading Reckless but put off by the prospect of a few animal liberation diatribes – you have nothing to fear; PETA is not even mentioned).

Everyone I’d ever met in my whole life was now in a band. I now had absolutely no hope that it would happen for me but I was so used to failure that, like a cart horse en route to the glue factory, I just kept going. (p214)

But every band needs songs to play and a shitty original is still better than a good cover – and I had some shitty originals. (p213)

 And lo, The Pretenders came into being.  Three young men from Hereford – musicians, not punks, not all recruited at once – give shape to the Hynde songs.  She pays special tribute to the guitarist, the late James Honeyman-Scott, “the reason you’re even reading this because without him I’m sure I would have made only the smallest splash with my talents – probably nothing very memorable“.

Pretenders 1st albumLooking for a producer they send a demo to Nick Lowe, who says, “I definitely want to get in on this Sandie Shaw song“.  Which is … their cover of The Kinks’ Stop your sobbing.  (Thanks Nick, that one has stuck – sound like her, indeed it does).  It’s a hit single but Chris Thomas completes the album.  It so happens this was a quid charity shop vinyl purchase of mine a while back that I never got round to playing.  I just had to de-fluff the needle twice in the playing, but, reminded, am impressed by its realative sophistication and classic aplomb; everyone knows Brass in pocket but I’d forgotten what a sinuous epic Private lives is.

It’s a big success, and that’s when the real trouble starts:

All the things we saw happening to other bands were now happening to us. It took us by surprise. The ‘overnight’ success; having to explain ourselves to the press where we were open to be judged, even laughed at – same as we’d so often laughed at others. And the in-band resentments: only a few months in and we were already living the clichés of the trade. (p260)

The temptation for a Dylan quote overpowers me: “She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all“:

As far as rock bands went, it was all textbook stuff. But the fact that everybody in every band in history had gone through the same things didn’t make it any easier to assimilate the horror show of drug addiction. Alcohol was always in the mix too, the lethal ingredient to the dark side, ever lurking. The only reason we were still standing was that we had youth on our side. But as always, time was running out.

By the time the narrative ends her one time lover and original bassist, fired because of out of control heroin usage, and guitarist James are both dead.  Over 30 years ago, that was.  She still works with original drummer, Martin Chambers.  One of the better rock memoirs, I’d say.  Distinctive, even.

A short postscript in the matter of Ray Davies

Given in the interest of Lillabullero in Raymond Douglas Davies evidenced elsewhere on this site, I’ll parlay a few words about their troubled relationship – “Ours was a battle of wills – as recounted in Reckless.  “We’d always laugh after the facts about the absurdity of our fights, but there was nothing funny about them. […] I kept going back into the ring, so to speak. After all, he was handsome, funny as hell, smart and interesting – he was Ray Davies!”  There’s a nice story about her throwing some new shirts she’d just bought him out of the window of their New York residence in a rage, only for them to be picked up by an old tramp, who secreted them under his mac, stepping lightly away;  Ray, of course, had cast himself as a tramp in his 3-album and stage show Preservation saga.  We also get her version of the Guildford Registry Office ceremony failure, they travelling down on the train: “I was wearing a white silk suit I’d had made in Bangkok, with a skirt (so, as you see, I really was serious).”  They got separate trains back.

Closer to home

Living Archive BandAortas last Oct Sunday 2015Vaultage 29 Oct 15The Living Archive Milton Keynes‘s one-off fund-raiser at York House provided an absorbing, entertaining and, at times, very moving evening.  A multi-media presentation, with the actual recordings of those who had been interviewed – with the old North Bucks accent much in evidence – about their youth and working lives, backed up by archive photographs setting the context before the accomplished Living Archive Band performed some fine songs, many sounding as if straight out of the folk tradition, directly inspired by those reminiscences.

The programme was themed, taking in, for the first half, The impact of the railway (including Cotton and fluff, about the women in the sewing rooms at Wolverton Works), and The impact of war (including the unforgettable voice of Hawtin Munday as per the poster).  The second half looked at Local communities during the last 100 years, finishing with The night the Stones rolled into town – one of those legendary gigs, the Rolling Stones at Wilton Hall in Bletchley, 1964 – a lilting refrain about the future being here then, a poignancy enhanced by there being no attempt at employing any Stones licks.  The Living Archive is a very good thing.  Here’s a web link: http://www.livingarchive.org.uk/

Highlight of the second Aortas open mic of October at the Old George was some great fiddle from Nuala Friedman, first accompanying Naomi Rose, whose granddad’s violin it was, on songs that were new to her – such musicianship! – and then having something of a session with Dan Plews.  Earlier Ralph Coates had managed the fine rhyming of “She’s a walking disaster / but I love her pasta“.

There must have been something in the air for Halloween week’s Vaultage, even though Pat was the only one with warpaint, because it was packed for featured sets from quality local stalwarts Mark Owen and Mitchell Taylor, and we got a Dave Cattermole bonus at the end.  Oh, and Ralph Coates played standing up for the very first time and it did indeed make a difference.

 

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