Tuesday, 10 November 2009

November 9th. 1989: Where were you?

Yesterday, twenty years ago, demolition of the Berlin Wall began with sledge-hammers and enthusiasm. By evening and throughout the night, thousands of people were pouring through in either direction amidst a spontaneous party atmosphere.

I had just arrived in Istanbul following an overland drive in an old Mercedes. The car was part of a trade for kilim carpets. I was the main driver accompanied by the Camden Market trader and her daughter, the co-driver. Pat, a rug dealer, had a history of swimming against various tides and had managed to establish a women's cooperative in southern Turkey for the production of carpets made on hand looms in the way they had been for thousands of years. The Mercedes was a negotiated carrot to mollify the egos of businessmen minders who continued to maintain organisation of all financial transactions.

We had left London 6 days earlier, arriving in Ljubljana early evening of the second day, having spent the first night staying with friends in southern Germany. Ljubljana was a beautifully preserved city with more obvious art nouveau architecture than in any other European city I had seen. In the morning, we wandered through the eery, cold dampness of practically deserted streets and happened upon a market. Here, coated, hatted, scarved and booted, women were selling mushrooms and fungi, and cabbages, exclusively of the hard, white variety, whole or shredded. Apart from this array of diverse fungi, edible and medicinal, and the hills of stacked cabbage or polythene sacks of shredded, nothing else was on offer. It was impossible not to imagine that this annual trade had a similar antiquity to that of the Turkish carpet weavers.

As we proceeded through the former Yugoslavia, it became clearer that this was a nation in which inflation had gone mad. The thousands of dinar that we handed over for a loaf of bread or a bottle of brandy amounted to pennies for us. We had been down and out in Stuttgart, but our status as rich Westerners rose the further east we travelled during these latter days of the USSR. The Mercedes became a symbol of our ostentatious wealth to wide-eyed, country dwellers, though the left-hand drive, twelve-year old car had cost only a few hundred pounds in London.
Arriving in Beograd, we had grown accustomed to perceiving an expression of pinched austerity among the people which was echoed in the run-down, unimpressive architecture of the city. We were surprised however to witness the incongruous spectacle of a McDonald's fast-food joint, ostentatious and oasis-like in this desert of predominantly post-war, poured-concrete building. Beograd also surprised with its underground cellar night-life, home to various eating and drinking dens, exuberant but bad pop bands and late-night, apparently spontaneous, brandy-fuelled, unison singing.

However, none of the stoic down-troddenness of Yugoslavia prepared us for Sofia. Entering Sofia was like entering a Hollywood film set of a European, pre-war, German city. The dimly lit streets, the trams and the attended car parks manned by leather-clad heavies with German Shepherd dogs added up to a heady brew of travellers' terror and hang-on-to-your-wallet suspicion. The heavily made-up women, exposing stockinged legs in deference to the cold in the vacant lots established as wire-fenced parking areas, barely a spit away from the main drag, distinguished by the popping two-stroke engine of an occasional Trabant, added exoticism to the spectacle. It also did nothing to alleviate the all-senses-firing, adrenaline-fuelled, self-conscious anxiety which is peculiar to the outsider who realises he stands out so obviously like the white Mercedes he is driving or the McDonalds in Beograd.

Having done some dollar deal with the guardians of our car, we marched along to the 'Intourist' office in order to be allocated rooms somewhere for the night. En route we couldn't help but notice that the cars parked in the street had no windscreen wipers. We later discovered by way of a German-speaking taxi driver that they had been removed by their owners to avoid their inevitable theft.

I can still hear the high-pitched, nasal English of the Intourist girl with the beehive hair as she issued our documents for the hotel and coupons for dinner and breakfast; it was eerily affective and reminded me of Marla, the Venusian 'Space Patrol' puppet. However, the exotic parking lot, the missing windscreen wipers and Marla's accent were only the prequel to an increasingly bizarre evening involving a space pod cafe, the hottest spot in town according to the taxi driver we commissioned for our outing, and a waiter wearing a black waistcoat, bow-tie and a white shirt which appeared not to have been washed for several weeks. Here, amidst potted plants and piped Beatles covers, sat on 60s formica chairs, we sipped vodka cocktails and looked out over the dimly lit town with not a little bemusement at our present fate. However many dollars we exchanged for 'lev', the local currency, I cannot recall, but it was practically impossible to spend them. There may have been some underground happening going on somewhere but we weren't going to find it.

The next morning we were given directions to a restaurant where we could exchange our coupons and queue alongside many other workers of various kinds for warm goulash and beer. Plastic, pint pots of beer were arranged around a pump like cups of tea in an English cafeteria. We sat with our food, a clear soup with floating, fatty mutton lumps, and tried to look willing. It was like one of those school dinners at which 'Miss' sits at the end and you have to pretend to eat the grey mush, but there is a limit as to what your knife and fork will physically cover when it is time to pass your plate.

A walk in the central street was hard to comprehend. There was a quiet grandeur about the mostly baroque buildings and we had grown accustomed to the lack of traffic, but where were the neon signs, the logos, the paraphernalia of consumer life? Then we looked more closely within the buildings we were walking by. There were large windows, which should have been a clue; however, all that was on display was a pitiful assembly of disparate objects. A toy shop, I recall, had a large proscenium arch of a window but contained only selection of wooden building blocks as centre stage with some rag dolls stages left and right. This seemed at once comic and poignant. The most powerful feeling, however, which emerged slowly and surely, was centred around our own expectation of what we assumed a city should look like; of how we had become conditioned to a kind of abundance which wasn't in existence here. The contrast was stark and profound.

It was not without a sense of relief, however, when we finally negotiated the tumultuous, free-for-all traffic and crazy shopping zone, with shops and stalls and food in sight everywhere, which was Istanbul. Istanbul manifested all the brashness and immodesty of West Berlin as it had once appeared to me after a day in East Berlin on the Friedrichstrasse run in 1982.

We found a hotel, somewhere near the Blue Mosque, washed up and prepared ourselves for a blow-out. An hour later we stepped down to the foyer with no particular plan, only to meet the very same two guys from Izmir who were taking delivery of the car. How? What? The questions were somehow framed and lost as we poured into a taxi and headed to a fish restaurant with dancing. Neither Ahmed nor Murat spoke English and we had little or no Turkish. Fortunately, Murat had lived in Germany and spoke some of the language. This was not the first, nor the last, time my low-grade A-level German came in useful. He explained that the Berlin Wall was coming down that very day. This was very exciting and significant for us, and cause for celebration. After the spectacle of the gyrating abdomen of the impossibly supple dancer, we hit the floor and were instructed how to dance Turkish-style. When we sat down again and drank more wine, I recalled a word from school: Lebensgefühl. Our German-speaking Turkish friend translated for Ahmed, and we all drank a toast to 'Lebensgefühl'. It seemed very meaningful at the time.

It's difficult to comment, without portfolio, on the whole matter of the disintegration of the former USSR. 'The Wall' had been not only a physical barrier, separating and impounding, it had been a symbolic one as well. There was, and remains, ambiguity in terms of gains and losses, but the initial exuberance was founded in the fact that the people had emerged from under an overarching politics. This would not have happened in the way it did without preparatory, political activity, but the enduring idea is one of liberation; not just a liberation from an oppressive regime, but a liberation, both physically and symbolically, by the people, from a political structure. There is a paradox here, clearly, which the idea of democracy has somehow always to exceed.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Pete Townshend: The kids were alright


Pete Townshend came into my sights this week by way of his appearance on Radio 4 (Baroque and Roll: Townshend on Purcell, 27/10/09) in which he discussed the influence of Purcell on his music. Such talk was notably absent from the 2007 film, Amazing Journey, a biopic of the band which I viewed on Sunday, though Townshend's penchant for an erudition teetering dangerously on the edge of pretension ('John [Entwhistle] and Keith [Moon] were geniuses and I was verging on it') was consistent. Amazing Journey plots the colourful history of The Who from their foundation as The Detroits and The High Numbers through to an elder statesman-style reconciliation, (between Roger Daltrey and Townshend, the only two extant members of the original band), which included a species of demythifying, faux candid profanity, that we might expect. According to the film, Daltrey supported Townshend throughout his trial by the media following his arrest for allegedly viewing child pornography. Clearly Townshend's appearance on Radio 4 heralds a prodigal return to respectability; his time spent as a media untouchable has been duly served.

The documented history of The Who would be a good choice for a time capsule information pack and a future needing to comprehend the course of popular music from the early 1960s to the late 1970s.
As The High Numbers playing Detroit soul to an Ivy League-
emulating audience of young Mods, the group looked, sounded and felt as exciting as the phenomenon of small club/pop group/dancing audience ever gets. The astonishingly clear and well-edited footage of a performance at The Railway Hotel, Wealdstone in 1964, captured by Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, who subsequently managed the band as The Who, is here:
The Who's first single, 'I Can't Explain', [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uFcPjILC7k ] was one of the best pop singles ever created, in my opinion, and a fine example of Townshend's perfectly tuned, introverted lyrics: 'Can't explain/ I think it's love/
Try to say it to you/ When I feel blue'. The fumbling, introspective, lovers' melancholy of the fledgling, adult male was never better expressed. Couple that with the staccato chop of dampened guitar chord and the enfant terrible expressiveness of Moon's drumming and you have the best of early '60s guitar band vitality bubble-wrapped. Further, there's the beautifully concise guitar solo with the unmistakeable Rickenbacker's (12-string?) harmonic overtones in the middle.The Who were, arguably, always more exciting, energetic and expressive of a generation's disengagement from establishment values than The Beatles, or even The Rolling Stones - and certainly The Kinks, though 'You Really Got Me' has a similar energy, musically.

'My Generation' became an anthem of youth culture's imagined disjuncture with all that had gone before. Daltrey's stuttered, rhetorical question, a thinly disguised expletive, 'Why don't you all f-f-fade away?', spat out amphetamine-fuelled contempt. Townshend's windmill, power-chord guitar playing, Entwhistle's high-held, top-end tone, lead-style bass and Moon's overhand, explosive engagement are perfectly married in an expression of magnificent malcontent. A pent-up anger about the 'values' espoused by parents and rammed down the throats of their young is finally and succinctly exporated. This song gave a name for the first time to a shared desire to break free from a miasma of greyness, austerity and deference to the travails of Second World War survivors; it also provided the momentum for anti-heroic reinvention.

Townshend explains in the film that an atmosphere of silence about 'the war' prevailed during his youth in the late '40s and early '50s in which all discussion on the topic was taboo. Yet the consequences of the war and the ideological imperatives of post-war rebuilding were all too apparent. It was down to this 'generation' and their technological inheritance to create a bright, new future on the back of the effort of the wireless generation, those conscripts to armies and factories. A potent emotional ambivalence, a mixture of instinctive love (I can't explain) and implicit resentment (I can't explain) for the privileges of a youth who would inherit an earth unbound by austerity and servile duty thus informed the necessarily inexplicable, regenerative atmosphere of the 1950s. Like Beckett's 'accursed progenitors' , a shell-shocked legion of parents had given birth to a gaggle of emergent aliens like Midwich Cuckoos in the nest. A generation 'gap' had arisen by way of a baby-boom birthing cauldron, an amniotic soup of complex expectation and ineluctable struggle.

The Mods were in self-styled opposition to a blanket of conformity and the projects of fathers and mothers who had inexplicably suffered in ways that were necessarily acknowledged at the same time as they were guiltily resented. A step on from Osborne's angry, young men,
a working class youth of the '60s exploited both individualism and solidarity by way of technological advance which included Lambrettas and Vespas, Dansettes and 45s, ITV and Ready, Steady, Go. For the budding musician there was Boosey and Hawkes, the Selmer mail-order catalogue and the possibility of a 'Hire Purchase Agreement' or 'HP' as everyone called it. 'Escape' was a keyword and one that became increasingly deployed as explanation in a similarly emergent jargon of pop psychology. The lack of respect for prevailing values and 'standards' existed both within a traditional cycle of supercession and within a new found land of snook-cocking postures of indifference. If the burden was on the kids, the kids weren't having it; 'The kids are alright'. Though the latter song, like 'Substitute', bears witness to a complex renegotiation of identity and gender roles which exceeds the slogan-like mantra of an 'anyway, anyhow, anywhere I choose' sentiment.

The matter of war as backdrop, (reinforced by war comics and TV history programmes), as 'Cold' and deferred, and as it composed the increasingly implacable distance between parents and offspring became a repressed needing return. Battles were displaced and enacted on Brighton beach and other such loci of leisured conformity and promenade. Whilst the Mods adopted fashion and make-up, their counterpart, the Rockers, or Greasers as they were later known, represented a uniform resistance to such gender slippage and coquettry. As depicted in the Franc Roddam-directed film, Quadrophenia (1979), (part-written by Townshend), the Rockers appeared to represent some stuff that was good about an existing culture and worth hanging on to. The scene in which Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels) is helped by his erstwhile mate, Kevin (Ray Winstone), to fix his scooter conveys the idea that Rockers and their
hands-on approach to machines and a seemingly less agitated sensitivity to the matter of disinheritance constituted a more moderate relationship with existing values. Kevin's willingness to open a toolbox and help a mate resonates, not unsympathetically, with the ethos of 'Practical Handyman'. The Rocker is symbolically aligned with what is worthy and good about fixing things: repair and sustain. After all, their fathers had ridden and loved motorbikes. Scooters were somehow effeminate and accessorising; they weren't about speed and engineering. Many of the 'ton-up boys', however, became Hell's Angels as the decade wore on, and the Mods evolved into Hippie emulators or 'Freaks'; both sides of the debate came increasingly under the influence of psychedelic drugs.

'Drugs' found a new life in the 60s. At the beginning of the decade there were 'pills' or 'blues', i.e. amphetamines, predominantly the 'slimming pill', dexedrine. Their use and their facility to induce paranoia and increase anxiety are well depicted in Quadrophenia. The desire for escape and its mediation by the press, the pop-psychologising 'escapism', constituted the only available explanations for an increasingly febrile reaction to a perceived politics of constraint. An atmosphere of non-conformism developed into an irrevocable rift with the apparently hypocritical values of an outmoded system by way of the psychedelic drugs, Marijuana and LSD, which were increasingly available as the decade went on. The doors of perception, the gates of heaven and hell, were flung open and, from the perspective of the new explorers of an altered mind, the 'straights' were viewed as the wicked gatekeepers or guardians. 'Far out' was considered desirable and 'out of sight' of 'normal' people or everyone who hadn't yet 'turned on'. The ambiguous territory of sharing a platform of power with an arrière garde politics positioned pop bands in an entirely novel position. The words of politicians were no longer to be trusted following national scandals like the Profumo and Poulson affairs. Meanwhile, the words of pop songs became the messages and anthems of a new aestheticism. The politicians of this new aestheticism were the rock stars; their platforms were the stages at rock concerts.

Late '60s and early '70s footage of The Who performing rock 'opera', Tommy, for example, demonstrates a spectacular transcendence from the solidarity of a shared spikiness to a kind of magical realist spectacle: a big production number. The clothes are bad, particularly Daltrey's Buffalo Bill jacket over a bare chest, and the music had reached a level of frenzied excess in which the guitar-smashing seemed less art-house anarchy, more wanton, token and pointless; even more so than it once did to the uncomprehending bystanders at the small clubs who could only dream of owning a decent Telecaster, let alone smashing it up. 'We won't get fooled again', though an epic aspiration, is undercut by the glitzy cheese of stadium rock. The arrival of punk, as has often been observed, was a necessary palliative: a rootsiness, albeit already partially commodified, of which The Who had been a model. In an interview with Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols in Amazing Journey, Jones describes how he and Paul Cook happened on Pete Townshend in a Camden pub in the late '70s. Apparently Townshend was pissed and asking 'who are you?' incessantly. Unwittingly, he had already handed on the baton.

The Who produced some great music throughout the '60s and '70s and the above seems less than generous in that regard. However, for an index of the evolution of pop music from American influence to home-grown hybrid to psychedelic impro romp to pretentious 'rock', The Who's career is paradigmatic. Then again, there are currents which are unique to the Mod sensibility or to its carnivalesque other as explored in songs like 'Happy Jack' or 'Bell Boy'. Comparable material caricaturing the harmless, because unwitting, emerged by way of The Small Faces and The Kinks. The cue to reconstitute Englishness by way of quasi-nostalgic portraiture perhaps came by way of The Beatles and the urge for a pop act of remembrance. The unlikely amalgam of comic grotesque and psychedelic fuelled the Magical Mystery Tour bus and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club with its parade of benign eccentrics, like so many aunts and uncles in the hinterland of the front-line conflict of parent/child relations.

Townshend was clearly a great writer and the mastermind within The Who, but such a band could not have existed without the phenomenal coincidence of musicians who were drawn to its original, energetic constitution.

So, what of Pete Townshend on the influence of Purcell? Everyone is prone to historic revisionism, but Townshend impressed with his account of hearing Purcell as a young man. It emerged that he commanded a much grander vision of his music and career than I had formerly understood; that he knows how music works and knows how to talk about it. The most telling remark, however, was on the topic of how he had been moved to tears by Purcell's sensibility and rendering of Englishness: its melancholy and its tendency to tragic resolution. The young man who wrote 'the things they do look awful c-c-cold/ I hope I die before I get old' has survived and is possibly still evaluating his own emotional ambivalence to growing up within the context of a post-War Britain which prompted him to wear a Union Jack jacket or sport an RAF insignia on the back of a parka.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Four New Faber Poets

The timber-framed, baronial/serf-exploiting splendour of Dragon Hall in King Street, Norwich provided the venue last night for the launch of the Faber 'New Poets' tour. They are four poets of exceptional talent: Jack Underwood, Heather Phillipson, Toby Martinez de la Rivas and Fiona Benson. The event was hosted by the Norwich poetry group, Café Writers' Society, and chaired by Matthew Hollis, Faber's poetry editor, with able support from George Szirtes, who also read from his own work.

Jack Underwood kicked off the event with a welcoming confidence.
Jack graduated at Norwich Art School and went on to study for a PhD at Goldsmiths, where he now works within the Creative Writing programme. He also fronts a rocking, three-piece band, 'Le Tetsuo', who have appeared locally over the years and are much admired. In the poem, 'Your Horse', (a personal favourite), the protagonist has an awkward audience with an ex at which 'horse' manifests itself with embarrassing effects. 'Hannah-loo', the imaginary memoir of a guitarist from the late fifties is also a gem.
'Sam Lynch lent me a gypsy dollar to cut our first record
at the hollow shack off Memoir Street.'
Jack utilises a surrealistic idiom to brilliant effect in capturing the quotidian comedies of errors and manners pivoting on the platonic seesaw of idea and base execution.

Heather Phillipson's writing is well observed stuff. A couple of poems feature her encounters with phenomenology by way of Heidegger. 'German Phenomenology Makes Me Want to Strip and Run through North London' represents the desire for a Dasein other than the effort of reading 'Being and Time'. A later poem enacts a kind of Beckettian applied philosophy to a family scene, at which the matter of analysis begins to teeter on an absurdist, albeit phenomenological, edge.

Toby Martinez de la Rivas's first poem, 'Song', captures the ignominy of a country type,
'too busy' or 'too poor' to properly husband the creatures in his care. It's full of arresting images and Lawrentian in its evocation of scene, while reaching beyond the immediate object: 'draping and inverse, eyeless thing/ over his shoulder with disdain like a soiled boa'. The poet spoke of 'the religious impulse' and there is a visionary quality to his writing which is refreshing and powerful.

Fiona Benson astonished with a lyrical confessional poetry. I had to avert my eyes and listen. Like Toby Martinez de la Rivas's 'Song' , her poems are born out of a harsh, rural condition; not
'emotion recollected in tranquility' this poetry of incidental death and coupling in the grass against a backdrop of 'breeze-block wall'. The poem, 'Lares', has a dead bird 'snagged/ by a halter or skein of fibre or yarn' enacting a mnemonic function, of which the list, reaching out for accuracy and reenactment, suggests a panoply of possible threads, as does the later 'spindle and pin/ and needle and thorn of your hollow bones'. A textual tapestry is woven: 'after the fact of your scavenged heart,/ the stolen tissues of your wings'.

A common denominator of all four poets is their ability to use language to capture the subtle significance of the occasional and incidental. This is a significant strength of good poetry. T. S. Eliot, Faber's erstwhile, illustrious editor, spoke of 'the objective correlative' and, though he was underpinning a theory of impersonal poetry, he was also validating the way in which the world speaks to the potentially creative sensibility.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Acoustic Ladyland

I don't have time to do a full review right now but nevertheless have the urge to mention seeing the excellent four-piece ensemble which is 'Acoustic Ladyland'. I've seen Seb Rochford, the drummer, in a number of incarnations, e.g. supporting Julia Biel in F-IRE Collective and with Joanna MacGregor in her role as conductor of a performance of Moondog material. Somehow I've managed to miss Polar Bear a few times. Rochford is an exceptionally good drummer and fascinating to watch. He makes it all look so effortless as he sits bolt upright behind the kit, big hair and all.

The band's sound is driven by the astonishing, punkish on-beat bass playing of Ruth Goller and they are fronted by Pete Wareham on sax. I do not know the name of the guitarist.

Ruth Goller is amazing. Her slight stature and impish presence are at odds with the big, big sound she makes - sometimes chording, at all times in total unison with Rochford's faultless subtlety.

Here's a link to the 'Skinny Grin' single 'Cuts and Lies':

though the new album, 'Living with a Tiger' has different personnel and is the focus of the present tour. Here's a link to something resembling the current band (minus guitarist) playing the title track. It gives an idea of the power of Ruth Goller's driving bass:

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Don Van Vliet AKA Captain Beefheart

I just spent an evening cruising YouTube and watching old footage of one of my all-time music heroes, Captain Beefheart. What a great resource! There is some astonishing material there, including a 60 minute documentary (broken down into 10 minute slices) made by John Peel and filmed by Anton Corbijn, which gives a good snapshot of his life and work. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4M5YE_a4B1U)

Don Van Vliet never went to school. His parents left him to his own devices: mainly sculpting in his bedroom. At 13, he was offered a chance to go and study the art in Europe (more detail on the Letterman interviews), but his parents swiftly took off to the Mojave desert, so that put paid to that and I am left speculating on their motives. No doubt it is detailed somewhere.

In the Peel documentary, Frank Zappa describes how, as teenagers, he and Don hung out listening
to Blues and R&B records most days. A leap forward takes us to the time of the band's first recording and clashes between the respective missions of Beefheart and the record producers. Ry Cooder, who was drafted in to 'rationalise' the first album, 'Safe as Milk', takes up the story, describing Beefheart's tyrannical rule over what went down and Cooder's own hasty departure after the album was cut and the Captain started developing panic attacks, culminating in his abandoning stage at a pre-Monterey gig.

Here's a link to that early 'Magic Band' playing 'Sure 'nuff 'n' Yes I Do':

The transition from a compromised commercial project, by way of the psychedelic wonders of 'Strictly Personal' and the live 'Mirror Man', to the masterpiece which is 'Trout Mask Replica' is elided in the documentary, for the main reason, I suspect, that the latter album and the astonishing history of its making is worthy of some serious attention. But 'Strictly Personal' importantly develops the essential blues base of Van Vliet's music. A blues bias is evident on the first album, which still sounds refreshingly good, but the Captain's capacity to distill elements of the blues, to mix them contrapuntally and to reconstitute a hybrid and original modification is evident throughout the later psychedelic period. The debt to Howlin' Wolf is importantly recognised. Van Vliet's 'system' finds its best expression however in Trout Mask, as we once lovingly called it. Fellow listeners would even quote segments of the 'interludes' by way of greeting.

'What do you run on Rocket?'
'Say Beans'
'I run on beans. Laser beans'


'Fast and bulbous'
'That's right, The Mascara Snake. Bulbous, also Tapered.'

As Matt Groening admits on the doc, the first time you play the record, it can be hugely disappointing and hard to get through; it really needs to be heard a number of times in order for the ear, the brain and its auditory illuminations to accrete sufficiently to appreciate the subtlety. Though perhaps this is the way we 'colonise' music. Beefheart speaks elsewhere of his mission as breaking out of the brain-numbing effects of the habitual 4:4 rhythms which surround us. Astonishingly however, occasionally the separate parts played by the band come together with grand and completely novel effect. In this respect, one might consider Steve Reich's project. The method is described very well by Gary Lucas, guitarist during the much later 'Doc at the Radar Station' period, here:

The matter of the making of Trout Mask Replica, an apocryphal tale in which the band members were holed up on meagre rations and not allowed to leave the house for 8 months by their Bandmeister, is fleshed out within the documentary. Never before (or after?) had such an experiment in the production of avant garde music taken place. When the band emerged, they headed to Frank Zappa's studio and cut the whole double album in 4 1/2 hours. Here's a link to a live performance of two tracks,'She's Too Much for my Mirror' and 'Human Gets me Blues', which elsewhere is referred to as 'Belgium, 1969':
It is evident here how much they had honed their craft; the performance is one of great composure. And if you're hooked, there's more footage of lesser quality, labeled 'Detroit '71' and including material from the 'Decals' album, here:
The follow-up record, 'Lick my Decals off Baby' continues in the mould of 'Trout Mask' but is on the way to the more commercial turn, and the high point of the Captain's success, the aptly named 'The Spotlight Kid'. 'Lick My Decals' is a great record, though very rare, (hence expensive secondhand), on CD. It was issued early in the transition from vinyl to CD, I think, and curiously, never re-issued. A commercial was made by Van Vliet prior to its release in 1970. Here's a link:
This wonderful piece of Dadaist enterprise is 'modern' in the perennial sense; presciently post-modern in fact. The use of an anodyne local radio voice-over in conjunction with the 'way out' imagery is a tactic commonly deployed today in advertising, but in 1970 this was a radical departure which had viewers clamouring to complain. The film is now held by MOMA, NYC.

'The Spotlight Kid' includes two of my 'desert island' tracks: 'Click Clack' and 'Glider'. It's an overall great record. 'Click Clack' is a brilliant example of a pared down hybrid blues. 'I was two tears from you, baby'; 'Maybe you had a girl like that? Always threatening to go down to New Orleans and get herself lost and found.' Glider is a song of beatific vision: 'Into the sun. In my Glider. Up and down through the blues. There's no shadow beside her'. Here's a link to a very good, live version of 'Click Clack' from a gig identified as 'Paris 1972':


And 'I'm gonna Booglarize you, Baby' (The moon was a drip on a dark hood...) is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytJl4cATgIs

The rarely mentioned follow-up to 'The Spotlight Kid', 'Clear Spot', (the two albums are now coupled on one CD, bearing witness to the Cap's lack of high commercial success) includes some of the band's most sobre music ('Too Much Time'; 'My Head is my Only House Unless it Rains) 'and some of its most anthemic ('Big-eyed Beans from Venus'). It's another astonishing record: at times soulful, at other times utilising the established build techniques developed earlier (late drum entry, syncopation etc.) to more instantly palatable ends than previous recordings. Production values are high and, for Beefheart purists, it may appear to include material which is too commercial. Indeed, subsequent recordings from the reinvention of 'Unconditionally Guaranteed' on left me cold, and, though there are gems among them, including the ultimate 'Ice Cream for Crow', which is generally celebrated as 'a return to form', my intimate knowledge ends here.

As a wordsmith and poet, Van Vliet has flashes of genius. His surrealism is sense-making. His sense-making is surreal. There's a child-like, painterly clarity to his images. His artwork is often part of the album cover design and makes perfect sense in conjunction with the music. Though, the forms stand alone also. There is stylistic consistency and originality to his art. One art marketer claims his work is 'abstract expressionist', another dismisses this as inappropriate labeling because his paintings are not coming out of an urban environment, they are depictions of 'contemporary landscape'. No matter, his retirement from the music industry has allowed him to develop and find recognition for his art. A short film by Anton Corbijn, which includes an opening sequence featuring Don's ma, is interesting and poignant. The majority is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9N84JVEv084; the beginning, however, is included here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AkiUAljqWo

More anon....

Monday, 31 August 2009

The Crucifixion of St. Peter

I have just been on a trip to Tuscany with Owl Girl which included some time in Florence. There I visited the Cappella Brancacci, Santa Maria del Carmine, and saw the magnificent fresco, 'The Crucifixion of St. Peter', painted by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504), c.1484-5. Notably, St. Peter is upside down on the cross as in later paintings by Michelangelo and Caravaggio. Peter asked that his cross be inverted so as not to imitate his mentor, Christ. The proximity of this image to that of 'The Hanged Man' is to be noted. The image in the tarot does not connote an externally imposed torture; on the contrary it appears to represent a hapless coincidence. Nevertheless the form of inverted suspension corresponds to the image of Peter's crucifixion and the possibility of enlightenment, a point of difficult choice, a kind of saturnine conflict in the face of change.

Peter's human-all-too-human failings make him one of the most sympathetic characters in religious history. His denial of Christ culminating in the cock crowing is one of the most significantly human stories of the apostles, and one about which they all mostly concur. (kind of...)

Here's Luke's version of events (Luke 22: 54-62):
[Other refs: Matthew 26:57, 58, 69-75; Mark 14: 66-72; John 18: 15-18, 25-27.]

54 Having arrested Him, they led Him and brought Him into the high priest’s house. But Peter followed at a distance.

55 Now when they had kindled a fire in the midst of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them.

56 And a certain servant girl, seeing him as he sat by the fire, looked intently at him and said, “This man was also with Him.”

57 But he denied Him, saying, “Woman, I do not know Him.”

58 And after a little while another saw him and said, “You also are of them.”

But Peter said, “Man, I am not!”

59 Then after about an hour had passed, another confidently affirmed, saying, “Surely this fellow also was with Him, for he is a Galilean.”

60 But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are saying!”

Immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed.

61 And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said to him, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.”

62 So Peter went out and wept bitterly.

Baudelaire's poem, Le Reniement de St. Pierre, captures the kind of blasphemous empathy one might feel for this denial. Here's the last verse:

— Certes, je sortirai, quant à moi, satisfait
D'un monde où l'action n'est pas la soeur du rêve;
Puissé-je user du glaive et périr par le glaive!
Saint Pierre a renié Jésus... il a bien fait!

I am quite satisfied to leave so bored
A world, where dream and action disunite.
I'd use the sword, to perish by the sword.
Peter denied his Master?... He did right!

— Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

The kind of decision with which Peter was faced is one of perennial difficulty. Baudelaire kicks against the traces of martyrdom in the face of the banality of evil. Kind of...

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Oliver Bernard

Oliver Bernard was once my neighbour in a South Norfolk village, 
Kenninghall. I was renting a small house and in retreat from a painful separation; he was a well-known local CND activist and chaired a group with Derek Longmire and Colin Phillips. One day he invited me to a local classical music appreciation group which was run, I think, by Elizabeth Chattaway. I dutifully attended, though, at the time, I didn't much care for 'classical' music, I thought, though I could say much about the English blues revival if ever prompted.

I met Oliver many years later at a reading of his translation of Rimbaud's A Season in Hell'. These dramatic performances are now legendary. Oliver had donned some kind of white painters' tunic and delivered his Rimbaud with great assurance in a reading voice which compelled you to pay attention.

A decade later I was a visiting undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin. I was one of many who would cram in to the lecture hall to hear Brendan Kennelly on Yeats on a Friday afternoon. He would quote whole poems from memory, talk without notes and, like Oliver, had the power to bring poetry to life. I bumped into him one day in a corridor and he asked who I was and invited me into his office. The room was a maze of books piled almost to shoulder height with walkways through. He asked me where I was from, to which I duly replied: 'Norfolk'. 'Ah, do you know Oliver Bernard?', he asked as if I had just named a village in Sligo. He said how much he admired Oliver, who had read at Trinity College, and Brendan gave me a copy of his own Cromwell.

Oliver and his well known brothers, Bruce and Jeffrey, were part of the bohemian Soho scene of the 50s which included such luminaries as George Barker and Francis Bacon. The photo top left was taken by John Deakin in 1956. The photo top right is a cut down from a larger photo at the National Gallery taken by Sam Barker, George's son.


Here's a link to Oliver reading one of my favourite poems,
'For John Donovan':

Here's a link to another fan of this poem:

Or go to Oliver's website:

I have some experience of laying paving stones and John Donovan,
who has also worked as a labourer, is a good friend.


Cosmia and Pornografia

I have just read Witold Gombrowicz's Pornografia. Gombrowicz writes in the introduction:

'Youth seemed to me the highest value of life. . . but this "value" has a particularity undoubtedly invented by the devil himself: being youth it is below the level of all values.'
" These last words ('below all values') explained why I have been unable to take root in any contemporary existentialism. Existentialism tries to re-establish value, while for me the 'undervalue', the 'insufficiency', the 'underdevelopment' are closer to man than any value. I believe the formula 'Man wants to be God' expresses very well the
nostalgia of existentialism, while I set up another immeasurable formula against it: 'Man wants to be young.'

The book is a meticulous observation of human motivation and a novel variation on the Faustian theme. The author and his artist friend, Frederick, spend a summer in the Polish countryside as guests of an old friend. Against a background of 1940s German-occupied Poland, the plot is propelled by the visitors' shared observation that their friend's daughter, Henia, and the boy she has grown up with, Karol, a peasant boy, are ideally and erotically suited to each other but somehow blissfully unaware of it. Indeed Henia is contentedly betrothed to another. It becomes the artists' obsession and project to bring Henia and Karol to awareness of their mutual erotic potential.

Pornografia is a prolonged meditation on the relations between youth and maturity, innocence and experience, power and authority. The writing style is simple and direct, a condition it shares with all the best metaphysical detective writers: Kafka, Hamsun, Dostoevsky.

There is also a film made in 2003 by Jan Kolski which I have seen and would recommend. Though it digresses in some ways from the book, it has integrity and is an assured production. A review somewhere has noted that the atmosphere of the film has a profound impact on a Polish audience who are closer to the specific political history and for whom the elemental, pastoral setting elicits nostalgic response.