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Patti Smith’s M Train

Roaming around, my title today, comes from a random dip and blind finger point into Patti Smith‘s M Train (Bloomsbury, 2015), a book that opens with the words, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing“, addressed to her by a cowpoke in a dream.  A malaise is upon her and she’s drifting.  Being Patti Smith she has some interesting options, like a bizarre chat with ex-chess champ Bobby Fischer in Iceland, with Buddy Holly (about as rock and roll as the book gets, actually), and, he stipulates not chess on the agenda.  Or slobbing out to Midsomer Murders and other tv crime repeats, which I find wonderfully reassuring, in a London hotel; big fan of Scandi-crime too.

She drinks a lot of coffee – has her spot in a cafe over the road from her frugal New York apartment, mostly furnished with books.  When the coffee shop guys move to Redondo Beach (yup) to set up there, she visits and buys an old wreck of a house there on impulse (I say, impulse, but she’s not a cash buyer); in the storm that comes in hard later in the year the boardwalks are washed away, his cafe is lost but her house survives.  Along the way she writes with feeling about life with her late husband.  She’s more beat and Euro-bohemian than rock and roll in M Train.  There’s an engrossing trip to Japan.

I admire Patti Smith enormously.  She goes her own modest, decent and powerful way.  I love a lot of her songs, and she’s a compelling performer (when not shrieking).  She is steeped in culture, with and without a capital C.  I’ll admit don’t really get the Polaroid photos that illustrate M Train – my guess is they bear the same relationship to her friend Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic work as Samuel Beckett’s prose does to his pal James Joyce’s – but this is an absorbing memoir of a year that in other hands would seem self-indulgent and pseud.  I can see myself reading it again, not least to try and catch that fleeting reference to the actual M train to see where she was coming from in choosing her title.

strange-library-01The strange library

One of the springboards of  Patti Smith‘s actions in M Train is the writing of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (hell, I was even prompted to pick up a cheap copy of his 600-page Wind-up bird chronicle that I’ll probably never get round to reading as a result).  As it happens, I’ve had a copy of his The strange library (Harvill Secker, 2014) sitting around for a while now (I used to be a librarian), so it seemed an auspicious time to actually read it.  Which I have done twice now – it’s not a big book – and it’s only a struggling to justify itself better judgement that is stopping me playing the emperor’s new clothes card.

strange-library-02It’s certainly a handsome, fascinating and fun exercise in book design, or even art; that library issue pocket on the cover is three-dimensional, there’s, for example, a full-page illustration of 8 variously decorated ring donuts against a pink background and many other enterprising graphic injections, some of the pages show signs of wear, marbled endpapers etc.  Here’s an example of a double-page spread.  Plot line?  A bit of a swot is on his way home from school wondering about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire.  (I know – why?).  He drops into his local library and is led down into a labyrinthine basement where he is abducted and confronted with all sorts of Borgesian creatures, friends and monstrous foes both, and undergoes various trials.  Or various sillinesses, the sceptic in me says.  “All I did was go to the library to borrow some books” is his complaint.

On second reading I began to wonder if I was meant to wonder about each actual choice of word and phrase, something to do with the magic of the written word.  I was struck by the notion of the boy worrying about his pet starling being fed while he was trapped; ridiculous I thought, until I googled it and, yes, it seems people do keep starlings as pets, especially in Japan.  Fantasy horror has never been a genre I’ve managed to live with, so I’m floundering a lot of the time, though I’ll grant a sense of the young hero’s devastation that haunts.  And I worry about that “After that, I never visited the city library again” line near the end.  But The strange library is a splendid object, that I flip through again now, with a strange affection.  Maybe the charity shop will have to wait, after all.

i-capture-the-castleI conquer the castle

No such ambiguity about December’s Book Group book.  I loved Dodie Smith‘s novel I capture the castle (1949) to bits, all suspension of disbelief willingly surrendered to one of the great opening paragraphs:

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy.

I capture the castle is Cassandra’s journal.  The conceit is she’s 17, wants to be a novelist and is recording family life to hone her writing skills.  Hers is a wonderful voice – naive, moral yet seeking wisdom, full of heart and good intentions, modern even – looking forward to Adrian Mole, backwards to Janes Eyre and Austen : “I kept pretending we were in a Victorian novel” she says.  She has an older sister, Rose – “I know she is a beauty. She is nearly twenty-one and very bitter with life. I am seventeen, look younger, feel older.  I am no beauty but have a neatish face.”  At a certain stage she says of her sibling: “And I regret to say there were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her fairly hard.”

It’s an eccentric family in the eccentric setting of an old ruin taking in a castle tower in the country.  Father – Mortmain – once had success as an avant-garde novelist: “Years and years ago wrote a very unusual book called Jacob Wrestling, a mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry,”  a novel that critics, whom he scorns, have given the label ‘enigmatism’; “he says the American critic has discovered things in Jacob Wrestling that he certainly never put there“.  He’s written nothing for years, their income is practically nothing.   In response to the family’s urging, “His only weapon has been silence – and sometimes a little sarcasm“.  This neat little nod to James Joyce‘s conclusion – “silence, exile and cunning” – in The portrait of the artist as a young man is a nice example of just one of the strands, a look at contemporary artistic circles, of this splendidly exuberant novel.  Mortmain’s second wife, Topaz, was an artist’s model in London taken to expressing risible attitudes, cavorting naked in nature worship, and capable of kind of Topazism it requires much affection to tolerate“.

Nevermind the plot, which involves a rich American family inheriting the pile, with the two young sons thereof doubling as romantic leads, leading to Rose’s pursuit of financial stability through marriage, Cassandra’s poignant discovery of love herself, and how they get Mortmain writing again, along with the progress of various other characters’ storylines … the joy of I capture the castle is in the playful invention (a village called Godsend with a sceptical priest, pets named after Heloise and Abelard) and the voice, Cassandra’s thoughts and voyage of self-discovery.  Here just three prime examples:

As we walked back to the house he asked if I thought La Belle dame sans Merci would have lived in a tower like Belmotte. I said it seemed very likely, though I never really thought of her having a home life.

The last stage of a bath, when the water is cooling and there is nothing to look forward to, can be pretty disillusioning. I expect alcohol works much the same way.

A year ago, I would have made a poem out of that idea. I tried to, yesterday, but it wasn’t any use. Oh, I could think of lines that rhymed and scanned but that is all they were. I know now that is all my poems ever were, yet I used to feel I could leap over the moon when I had made one up. I miss that rather.

But still capable of “She is a good-looking girl. Enormous feet, though“.  How can you resist?  It has a rather lovely ending too.

Roaming around locally

scribal-dec-2016December Scribal: Brian & Krysstal a sublime old style Music Hall or Variety act for the twenty-first century.  Think Hylda Baker and the ‘She knows ya know’ routine and then forget it.  Krysstal the bored gormless glamorous assistant cum straight woman (but with a killer dead pan delivery when left to her own fill-in devices), Brian musically a shambling long-haired filthier Lonnie Donegan combined with a loquacious dash of Tommy Cooper without the fez just for starters.  “They reckon observational comedy is funny, but I can’t see it.”  Probably the funniest act I saw last year.  Immaculate timing.  Try http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aiSdg0UEc0

we-built-this-cityAt Milton Keynes Central Library until the end of January, and a contribution to the MK 50th anniversary celebrations (yes – celebrations!), We built this city on rock’n’roll is a collage of MK’s musical history – both local and The Bowl as national venue (when we lived on Eaglestone we could hear the guitar lines coming over on the wind) – collated by contemporary local historian Lee Scriven, along with artefacts and a collection of some very fine portrait photography by the man himself of some of the major players in the city’s cultural evolution.  Let’s let him speak for himself:

To some rock n roll is Brylcreem, drainpipes and blue suede shoes, to others like me, it’s a turn of phrase to describe an attitude towards life. The talented, gifted and maverick ensemble of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, who created this city back in the 1970s, possessed a true rock n roll arrogance.
But as you are about to discover, the real pioneering heroes of Milton Keynes were the local residents and personalities who individually and collectively got off their backsides to create a very unique culture. Their collective efforts left more than just memories, they created the City’s cultural DNA and embodied the true spirit of Milton Keynes; be daring, be original and be brave, in other words be: Rock n Roll.

I’m not nit-picking about any of that (well not much, and not right now), though I will say that, for all it’s – and ultimately, I guess, ok, excusable – rhetorical power in this context, I’m still cringing from the thought of that horrible Starship song.  I have always run screaming from it.  Seems I’m not alone in my musical fear and loathing either, of what GQ in this article, called “the most detested song in human history”; beware, though – the fucking thing starts playing of its own accord from that page unless you are careful.  How strangely reassuring to learn Bernie Taupin had a hand in its writing.

No photos of my favourites at Stony Stratford’s New Year’s Day Classic Car Show this year, I’m afraid.  It was pissing down.  Did my duty and went – as hearteningly did plenty of others – but kept my camera dry.

Enough!  But just for the record, the launch of the Stony Bardic Trials at the library on Lantern Parade and Lights switch-on day and a Vaultage:

mitchell-taylor-at-bardic-launch

An intense Mitchell Taylor sans guitar. Photo (c) Bardic Council.

bardic-council-of-ss-photo-liam-farmer-malone

Liam ‘Farmer’ Malone. Photo (c) Bardic Council.

vaultage-early-dec-2016


 

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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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Brief life under the A5 flyover where it crosses the still full River Ouse for Old Dog’s display of his (or her) new tricks, already painted out by officialdom within a couple of weeks.  Probably not helped in its prospects for survival by dorkish work nearby, the possibly dyslexic perpetrator of which clearly has difficulty differentiating the Cock & Bull story Stony Stratford likes to trade on with, um, cock and balls.  Depressingly dumb.

I’ve got three books on the go at the moment.

Rohinton Mistry‘s excellent A fine balance (1996).  another reading group book all 600+ pages of which I wouldn’t normally have bothered with but I’m enjoying it enormously two fifths of the way in.  India from Independence to 1984 through the intersecting lives of three extended families.  Dickensian with shorter sentences and less twee sentiment.  Full of character, cynicism and compassion, it takes you there.  Some lovely precise language:

His ties were the subject of constant speculation.  On some evenings they hung long, dominating his front, flapping over his crotch.  At other times they barely reached his diaphragm.  The knots ranged in size from microscopic to a bulky samosa.

Here an ex-proofreader (a tale with its own delights) has a new career, is open for hire:

There was no problem on the creative front.  Writing speeches, designing banners – all that was easy.  With years of proofreading under my belt, I knew exactly the blather and bluster favoured by professional politicians.  My modus operandi was simple.  I made up three lists: Candidate’s Accomplishments (real and imaginary), Accusations Against Opponent (including rumours, allegations, innuendoes and lies), and Empty Promises (the more improbable the better).  Then it was merely a matter of taking various combinations of items from the three lists, throwing in some bombast, tossing in a few local references, and there it was – a brand new speech.  I was a real hit with my clients.

Then there’s Craig Taylor‘s nicely put together collection – he starts with an airline pilot describing coming into Heathrow – of Londoners talking about their lives in London, titled Londoners (Granta, 2011), and sub-titled as you can see on the dust jacket, was a Christmas present.  When I lived and worked in London, apart from pub rock I can’t say I really made best use of it, have visited more art galleries since I left it, for instance.  I don’t think I could do it now, live there I mean.  I’m slowly working my way through it as the downstairs cloakroom read I turn to when I’ve got through the latest Private Eye.  I’m about half-way through.  There are some fascinating people in here and – as you’d expect – some bores (hello Adidas trainers man) and some great, often unexpected tales, like transgender trainspotting and ceremonial adventures in the Life Guards – two different people I hasten to add.  There is poignancy too.  If Ray Davies is ever stuck for a subject for a song (as if) he can have this one.  It’s the woman who made the voice recordings they use for announcements on the Underground:

… when the Tube’s late, when it might have had a technical malfunction […] it’s me telling them over and over again that they’ll get there soon.
It’s funny, because when I got the call from London Underground I was at the restaurant with a guy I was seeing at the time and he said, “God, I’ll hear you everywhere.”  He wasn’t saying it happily.  We split up after that.  He has since told me he is haunted.  It is scary: you’re having a bad day and you get on the Tube and there’s the voice.  Poor guy.

And lastly, Peter Cheyney‘s The stars are dark (1943) is better written than I was expecting, and has a certain narrative bite to go with it.  For a long while, apparently, he was the only British writer ploughing the hard-boiled thriller field.  A second page sentence appealed to the ex-licorice paper roll-up smoker in me: “Greeley was one of those men to whose lower lips cigarettes always stuck.”  That’s a 1968 edition cover (5th impression) though it could be as early as 1956 when it was first out in those new fangled paperbacks.  The reason I’m reading it is a new project I’m working on (to give a grand name to a page I might add to Lillabullero) – Quayles in Fiction (for that is my name), or maybe Tales of Fictional Quayles.  Almost certainly the latter, now it’s just occurred to me.  The Quayle in The stars are dark (and later titles in the series) runs special ops, is a spymaster a long way from Ian Fleming’s M.  It all feels very black and white ’50s Stanley Baker movie.  He hasn’t got his hands dirty yet, but I suspect he might:

A cool, hard-headed one, Quayle … one who knew when to be tough and when to play it nice and soft and easy; who knew how to look like a big kind-hearted one and who could talk you into or out of anything, but who could do other things beside talk.

So that’s Everard Peter Quayle.  Other Quayles in the fictional bag – if not read – are a John Le Carre (The constant gardener), a Blandings P.G.Wodehouse (Something fresh), Matthew Kneale’s English passengers and at least one from Manx novelist – Quayle is a Manx name – Hall Caine (The Christian), which would explain why my father, who kept very few books, had an old-style hardback Hall Caine in his collection, the reason for which I never fathomed and that I wish I hadn’t thrown out now.  If anyone knows of any more, I’d be grateful.

Another book I wish I hadn’t disposed of (I suspect it went in the big move of 2007, when space had to be made, and I thought I’d never get round to reading it) is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The master and Margherita.  The reason I say this is that it’s the source of the title track of the new Patti Smith album, Banga (2012), which has me in its thrall and, indeed, enthralled. The passionate but never frenzied intensity of the core track, Constantine’s dream, was hair-raising the first time I heard it and continues to send shivers down my backbone (in the best possible way).  And yet there’s gentleness in there too, on the wide-ranging Banga.  She’s always been a great band leader/assembler, from the stunning debut of Horses onwards, keeping true to the essential noise of the best  American rock.  Because Horses arrived in the punk rush – “The boy looked at Johnny” – it’s easy to forget Patti Smith was born 1946: my generation.  She’s an Artist in the biggest sense of the word, has always followed her own path, has one of the great distinctive voices and – dubious phrase I know, but – she’s on our side.  As a writer and performer she’s up there with the greats.  And she’s still doing it, still cares as much as ever.  This may sound obvious to those who know but there’s a lot that have yet to realise it; took me a while to see just how much wealth there is in the whole back catalogue.  Look at this performance of the title track from Banga on the David Letterman Show, her glee at what they’ve just pulled off.

One final thought and a related observation.  How shit a movie was The boat that rocked, Richard Curtis’s film about pirate radio, which I happened to catch just recently?  Unbelievably bad, the more you think about it.  And did Leonard Cohen ever sound that young?  I’d like to think it was after seeing the film he wouldn’t allow So long, Marianne to be on the soundtrack album, which it isn’t, but it was probably some mundane commercial thing that never reached him.

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Patti Smith: Just kids

I’ve just been listening to Patti Smith‘s 1997 album ‘Peace and noise‘, an album I’d forgotten I had.  Lucky me; a lot of dense spare absorbing rock guitar with some shade thrown in and loads of words.  I put it on to help me think what I was going to say here about her book, ‘Just kids‘ (Bloomsbury, 2010), that I’ve just finished raeing.   Couple of years ago I couldn’t stop playing her covers album, ‘Twelve‘.   Hers is such a distinctive voice, and that’s just the physical timbre.  I’m trying to sum up what I feel about Patti, and the word I keep coming to is admiration. For her commitment; like and love don’t really enter into it, though I’ll happily admit I can return fresh to the work anytime and not be disappointed.  I’m just proud and full of gratitude that she can be bothered to produce her art for me, a bloke out here in her audience.  No solipsism this; her art is intensely personal.  But it’s the faith in art, in poetry, and part of it is that for her, it matters to keep acknowledging and using the redundant flame of rock music.

The book is engrossing, never dramatic though covering real drama, never lording it though it happens to be a namedropping bonanza.  It’s just that she was there in so many of the places and moments of a cultural history that still counts, and this she modestly records, their being of history but not writing history.  It’s a memoir of two people saying we’re going to be artists and how they managed it and were there for each other to enable it to come to pass – a commitment to a project that outlived their time as a couple and his (but I jump ahead) emergent homosexuality – about how they found their place, their artistic practice (bloody hell, I’m spouting art discourse: shoot me now).

Her partner in art was Robert Mapplethorpe, who actually came late to the photography from which his fame and infamy flows.  She eschews discussion of the controversies – leaves it to others – just believes in his art.  And scanning his stunning stuff in Google images I can live with that; there’s a piece on ‘Peace and noise’ called ‘Spell (footnote to Howl by Alan Ginsberg)’ – “Everything is holy” – that covers it, I think. He died of AIDs, 1989.

A few things that caught my eye.  What reading gave her as a child and an unrelated reluctance to being a girl.  An early Rimbaud fixation (I’ll read him one of these days), Stone Brian Jones a poetic pin-up.  A silly pregnancy, the decision to give the child up & go to New York to be a starving artist.  Early days in NY, Allen Ginsberg buys her coffee, tries to pick her up, thinks she’s a pretty boy.  She and robert link up  almost randomly, time and place is all, she has to ask Robert to pretend to be her boyfriend to get out of a bad situation.  His appearance, the look that launched a thousand lookalikes.   Living in the Chelsea Hotel before it went rock and roll bad.  Pals with a stoned  Harry Smith (the Anthology of American Folk Music, that Harry Smith), friends with the Beat crowd, or what’s left of them.  She’s in the room when Kristofferson gives Janis Joplin ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, doesn’t seem a big deal at the time.  Though she’s in  the happening swirl in Washington Square Park in ’67 she’s an observer, not really part of the crowd; they’re bohemians, not hippies.  She describes ’67 as the year John Coltrane died, the year of the movie ‘Elvira Madigan’ (which I certainly saw but can remember nothing about).  They paint, sculpt, she writes too.  He stumbles into photography via a Polaroid Land camera, she edges sideways into delivering her art through rock music.  Another milieu they mixed in, the art crowd, to give a taste:

“I didn’t feel for Warhol the way Robert did.  His work reflected a culture I wanted to avoid.  I hated the soup and felt little for the can.  I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it.”

I could go on, but I’ll leave it with the title derivation.  As well as all the fascination above (and a lot more) it’s a lovely book.  An old couple stop and gawp at them in the park, both telling it right:

“Oh, take their picture,” said the woman to her bemused husband, “I think they’re artists.”
“Oh, go on,” he shrugged, “They’re just kids”.

As it happens, another favourite album is James McMurtry‘s ‘Just us kids’, so I’ve been singing that catchy title tune to myself all the while – well it’s only one word out.  It tells what the singer and his mates did when the time to stay or go at school came around, what they were gonna do, how hip they were gonna be.  Then:

Just us kids hangin’ out today
Watchin’ our long hair turnin’ gray
Not so skinny maybe not so free
Not so many as we used to be.

And as it happens I was at a school reunion last weekend, a meal for my cohort as part the school’s 50th birthday celebrations.  It was good.  Saw people I hadn’t seen for over 40 years.  All the members of our old band (first proper song we ever, um, perfected, ‘Peggy Sue’) were there, which says something.  Should have asked Bazza how on earth he went from marine engineer to owning an antiques shop in Wiltshire; maybe another time.  Half a mile from home I was pulled over by the police, blue light flashing.  They were disappointed: “Oh, you’re not who we were expecting.”  Seems I got caught up in a small convoy at some stage in the journey; they were after the organisers of an illegal rave.  Another generation.

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