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.