Thoughts on the week, from elsewhere….

 

‘ The essay form is a tricky one to handle. It is not as though you have a story to tell. Anyone will listen to a story. What you are doing is just grabbing the reader by the slack of his coat and babbling to him, and all the time his probably dying to get away and go about his business.’

PG Wodehouse

That’s from the introduction to  a collection of Wodehouse’s more obscure articles initially written for magazines.  Picked up the collection ‘Louder and Funnier’   a few months back and dipping into it late at night  the past  couple of weeks.

It’s good to have a chuckle at Wodehouse’s  essentially good-natured but still quite acute wit before pulling the shades down and attempting eight hours of the restorative.

Someone else pointed out once – oh, go and have a look on the Googe for it, it’s bound to be online somewhere – that Woodhouse’s  writings inhabit a prelapsarian world.

That exaggerates things a little bit,  but not much. If there is a snake in this garden of Eden, it is either an aunt or an income tax inspector.

If there is a snake in this garden of Eden, it is either an aunt or an income tax inspector.

To the more fallen, real  world:  the election of Donald Trump.

Is he a Hitler on the rise?  that analogy  has been used so often, since the 1940s,  about every political leader the speaker or writer does not like,  it is now meaningless.

Actually, that is not quite true: it usually means the person making the claim is intellectually bereft of argument.

Back in the days, pre-internet, pre-Godwin’s Rule,  there was an informal rule amongst adjudicators in Auckland University’s Debating Society that any debater who compared opponents’ case to Nazi Germany/Hitler automatically lsot 10 points.

Is he a Berlusconi with nukes?  Maybe.

There is a clatter and a howl, a maelstrom of reaction to Trump’s election, and much of it seems to insist on only one overriding reason for his win.

It’s the sexism!

No, it’s the smug liberaliness!

It’s the poverty!

It’s the bloody media!

It’s that if Trump was a bad candidate, Hillary was worse!

It’s the FBI director!

It’s the Brexit!

It’s chemtrails!

The thing is, this US  election trashes so many previous presumptions  about what is supposed to work in politics, and is driven by many many factors –  probably almost all of the above (and I might even be willing to considering chemtrails before dismissing them completely out of hand)  that any instant wisdom doesn’t seem particularly wise.

Any one of the dozen or so scandals, gaffes, call them what you will, involving Donald Trump would have sunk any previous candidate, let alone all of those events together.

But they made him stronger.  Working out why  is going to take some time. Because it seems a candidate whose lack of almost any characteristic of human decency gathered momentum the more people saw of that side.

And really, we don’t really know what this guy is going to do because  it doesn’t seem as though he believed a lot of what he was saying himself.

I think we can only conclude two things for certain right now: one is his election upends so many previous presumptions about how politics works that a major re-think is needed.

The second, about Trump himself, is that he represents primarily an exaltation of power and celebrity that is highly unhealthy and dangerous in any democracy, let alone the world’s largest one.

This isn’t even about ‘left’ or ‘right’ – well, its not for me, anyway. I distrust untrammeled power, and even more, I distrust the worship of power, irrespective of who is wielding it.

I keep thinking of Ulysses’ great speech in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

Finally, the death of Leonard Cohen. Not a huge fan, but so many folk whose insight and taste I respect are fans I have to pause and note the event.

A particularly good piece comes from my good friend David Cohen, who has a lovely appreciation on Radio New Zealand site here.

I was struck, when reading Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly’s autobiography a few years back (reviewed here, btw) how much Kelly revered Cohen.

Kelly toured with Cohen, opening for the older singer, and although himself far too old for hero-worship sounds almost awestruck by Cohen’s approach.  and Kelly’s observations of the older singer, when opening for him on a tour.

Kelly marveled at Cohen’s attention to detail – attention paid not just for its own sake, but because it was an essential means for paying  respect to the people who came to see and hear him.

‘At the age of 74, at an age when some performers are merely phoning it in, he attended every sound check, which lasted usually between an hour in 90 minutes, and then backed it up each night with an intense three hour show.

Leonard’s performance was studied, gestural. …The devotion coming at him from the audience, the release of the pent-up hunger created by the years of absence, were matched, and more, by his devotion in turn to them. He served his audience sacramentally, given proper weight to his words and actions as he offered up his song prayers, everything in due order like stations of the cross. You know he meant it when he says, “Thank-you for keeping my songs alive”. He was paying everyone battle for, and respect.

I watched him and thought, that’s a way to be, that’s a way to act, there is a road to travel.

To walk in gravity and lightness, to be serious but not take yourself seriously, to pay attention, to know that you shall reap what you sow.’

I have added emphasis on that last sentence. It applies to us all, in any walk of life. It is precisely the opposite of a worship of power, or of any of the lazy and damaging abstractions which lead to abuse of our own strengths in our own daily lives.

It is an observation is founded in respect, mutual and deep, and an essential generosity of spirit.

‘Shouting out across an empty station…’ Don Walker, Jimmy Barnes, and Cold Chisel

Shots by Don Walker (Penguin) 2010
 Well some of us are driven to ambition
Some of us are trapped behind the wheel
Some of us will break away,
Build a marble yesterday
And live for every moment we can steal
Conversations, 
Conversations
Shouting out across an empty station...

‘Conversations’,   the opening track of Cold Chisel’s second album, Breakfast at Sweethearts, is the sort of song which critics call ‘full tilt’, but it isn’t so much full-tilt as almost overbalancing itself with its own speed. Fast and frantic, it captures the band’s own desperate ambition.

Not so long back, interviewing the man who wrote it and most of Cold Chisel’s songs, keyboard player Don Walker, Kim Hill suggested that people had a lot of fun to his songs, but they’re mostly quite sad songs.

Walker sounded somewhat nonplussed.

“I might have to go and have a look at meself”, was his response.

Difficult to tell if he was being serious. He sounded serious, certainly, but Walker has that dry Aussie humour which can be taking the piss when it is sounding most serious.

It is a brand of humour which often serves as a guard, especially when confronted with that kind of sharp personal insight Hill delivered during the exchange.

I found myself recalling that interview as Hill interviewed Jimmy Barnes, the lead singer of that band, Cold Chisel, last weekend.

Barnes’ memoir has just come out and it’s a lot about surviving what was basically an abusive childhood and adult alcoholism.

Barnes writes in that autobiography that despite their very different backgrounds, that it was as if Walker had read his mail.

Walker wrote most of Chisel’s songs, and I’ve thought for a long time that those songs – certainly his most famous ones, the ones he did with Cold Chisel, are about having a good time while you’re having a lousy time.

Back when they were in their heyday, I can remember having one of those intense conversations about music which you often have at that age, and distinguishing between the two big Aussie bands of the day, Australian Crawl and Cold Chisel.

Aussie Crawl were about pure hedonism, having a good time: Cold Chisel was about having a good time even though you’re having a lousy time, I vaguely remember proclaiming, probably while waving my arms around and just before falling off my chair.

This is kind of a definition of soul music (the having a good time while having a bad time thing, I mean: not so much the waving arms around/falling off chair thing), I think: if you listen to classic soul, by which I mostly mean the Stax-Volt Memphis brand but also the best Motown stuff, it is about dancing while feeling lousy about your life.

There’s a whole lot of socio-economic and political reasons for that aspect of soul music, most of which should be fairly obvious to anyone with who knows a bit about history and retains a bit of empathy.

It applies, perhaps less politically than in the music made by American blacks,  to other rock music: the Who’s Pete Townshend, when his band was trying to pretend to be Mods, suggested the Mod ethos not so much about solving young people’s problems as allowing them to dance all over those problems. (although dancing to the Who’s music, is, I think, a bit problematic).

Walker’s memoir, ‘Shots’ only seldom alludes to influences such as this. His own early influences were jazz and country, while Cold Chisel has been more associated with pub/hard rock.

That said, there are enough jazz and country, as well as blues, influences, on Chisel, especially their earlier work.

This number – which closed their first album – shows singer Jimmy Barnes wasn’t just a shrieker: it is a song of summer regret and has a torch-like, almost jazzy flavour:

Lovers see the world through an old red wine

All the sounds of the blues, well

They just disappear

With a light like yours beside me

It’s been an old, old, red wine year.’

Soul, definitely: Chisel’s second vocalist, guitar player Ian Moss, consciously modelled his singing style on Sam Cooke and although Moss isn’t as good as that (unless your name is Al Green or Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles you’re not even gonna come in the same league) you can hear the influence. (Moss used to sing Charles’ ‘Georgia’ at Chisel concerts and he carries it off respectably).

Walker’s ‘Shots’ is, as he has said himself, not so much a memoir as a highly impressionistic travelogue of his time before and after, as well as during, Cold Chisel’s heyday from 1978-93.

It reaches a climax, and a crisis, at the time Chisel release their breakthrough album, East. The opening track from that, like ‘Conversations’ has a desperate headlong rush to it, especially when played live.

Lyrically,  ‘Standing on the Outside’  is more linear than ‘Conversations’ – it has a similar mood to the earlier track and both were used to open concerts, but it tells a story as well. This live clip is from their final concert, and it shows them going out at their peak.

They’re playing their hearts, and guts, out here:

 

‘I wonder if other lives have a fulcrum, a few days or weeks that gather everything from decades before and fire it though into a trajectory pre-drawn for decades after…’

 

Walker ponders in ‘Shots’, referring to this period.

Just after East was recorded, and just before it was released, two friends of the band were killed in a road accident: one knocked out when it went into a tree and the other, conscious but struggling and insisting they get his mate out first when the vehicle caught fire and they both died.

‘Why that should have been the end of anything I do not know, maybe it just coincided with other things, but the end it was’, Walker wrote, years later, in the notes to the ‘Teenage Love” album. The final couple of years – including that farewell concert, the opening of which is that above clip, was, he wrote, a ‘long slow ugly vicious death… like clubbing a dearly beloved while they cling to your leg.’

It is a strange, jaundiced and in some ways odd read. Walker has a rare gift for a phrase: ‘someone whose dreams have strangled their common sense…’ he describes the funder of a concert in some bush backwater; ‘like trying to fuck through a tennis racquet’ sums up a particularly bad gig; young female concertgoers from the posh Victorian squattocracy, ‘rich girls who want to play out their hatred of any plans at all from anywhere up the ancestral chain’; or, visiting old haunts, ‘It’s like visiting your baby playground after you’ve sold your soul’.

There’s a cynicism, perhaps – a lyrical cynicism, certainly, but cynicism it is. Is Walker trying too hard here, perhaps? There’s what seems to be a deliberate, emotional guardedness, something which comes through in that response to Kim Hill’s question.

There’s a bizarre traveling the Aussie outback fantasy involving escaped Laundromat washing machines going rogue, roaming the badlands,  breeding and ‘sometimes ending a decoy out on the highway in ambush, if you stop they kidnap you off  and just wash the fuck out of you…’

The book is a neat, if offbeat, read. He comes at his subject – that subject being his own life, mostly – obliquely and from a skew-whiff angle. There’s a longer interview with him on ABC Radio here…

 

 

 

 

Bigger than Rod

 

Rod Stewart has been knighted. His autobiography was one of the musical memoirs I read in late 2014 as a detox from the general election campaign and meant to review for this site but, mostly, never got around to.

It was probably the most good-humoured and unpretentious of the lot. Stewart knows his faults and points them out before anyone else can get around to it – for example, his mid-’80s hit ‘Passion’ was a travesty:  he reveals his mother expressed her dislike and he concludes ruefully it was clearly a song not even a mother could like.

From the same era, he also reveals that, touring the US with his backing band, the only band which could outdo them for partying stamina and drug taking was the all-women Go-Gos.

And there is the aftermath of his split with Our Rachel, and how she wanted someone younger. In sharp contrast to his freewheeling and footloose image, he reveals he ended up seriously depressed and in therapy in California. More characteristically, he says the three therapists he saw were all varying degrees of useless. One breezily told him ‘you’ve seen one **** you’ve seen them all’; a second came on to him; the third suggested he get a cat.

Stewart’s best work was the first four albums he did in the early 1970s.’You Wear It Well’ is still my favourite of his big numbers – it’s a great, rough-hewn song about an old flame.

His later solo stuff, when he was a stratospherically feted pop and sex symbol, was almost all awful: ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’ has I suppose a certain kitsch ironic charm, if you’re into kitsch ironic charm, but personaly I find a little of this sort of thing goes a very long way. 

The first four albums were much more downhome, and much better. 

And, with The Faces, there was this great version of Paul McCartney’s ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’. To my ears, it knocks the original into a cocked hat. McCartney might be one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century, and the song is, no doubt, a stupendous declaration of the sudden, astonished emotion of a bloke unexpectedly finding love  – that line ‘maybe I’m a man in the middle of something/that he doesn’t really understand’ gets me every time. It’s perfect.

McCartney, though, isn’t always the best interpreter of his own work. And Rod and his rough, boozy sidekicks extract the emotion and soul from the song which McCartney himself never quite managed.

‘Mundane and heroic’– Tracey Thorn

Naked at the Albert Hall by Tracey Thorn, Virago 2015

Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn, Virago 2013

I’ll probably always associate Tracey Thorn’s voice with slightly hungover Sunday mornings. Back in the mid-80s Auckland BFM used to frequently play Everything But the Girl’s ‘Each and Everyone One’  at that time of the week: I loved it so much I went and bought the album.

‘Eden’ – which could out last year in a remastered digital version – became regular Sunday  morning music, with or without hangover.

While one of these books is a memoir and the other is a book about singing – mostly other people’s singing – they are both really books of a Music Fan (and I capitalise that title deliberately). A Music Fan who just happened to be a singer herself, equipped the with the experience, as well as the wry observational skill and writing ability, to get what she wants to say across.

Or not, sometimes.

Here is Thorn, about a programme in which Elvis Costello enthused about her favourite singer, Dusty Springfield

‘…and for the first time I truly heard that voice – that smoky, husky breathy, vulnerable, bruised resigned, deliberate, sensual voice.

At which point Thorn breaks off, exasperated.
‘Ugh. All the same old words, and they won’t do, will they?’ 
And she goes on to quote Barthes – a theorist chappie who hurt my brain so much at uni I stopped reading such stuff – on the adjective being  ‘the poorest linguistic category’.
All of which might make Naked at the Albert Hall sound inaccessibly pretentious and high brow.
It ain’t. Thorn switches between the deep thinky stuff and the engagingly human, readily and easily.
There is a lovely vignette of being recognised in a night club toilet as she washed her hands: instead of being asked for an autograph or a photo she was asked by some girls to sing a few bars of ‘Missing’ to prove she was that Tracey Thorn.

She did so – ‘because I’d presumably had a few drinks or I would have run a mile in the opposite direction’ and the girls grabbed each other and squealed “YOU SOUND JUST LIKE YOU!”

Which, naturally, becomes a chapter heading. It is perfect for this book.

She starts with the basics of singing, pointing out the primary purpose of the vocal tract is not even to make a noise: it is there to stop us from choking.

Singing, therefore,

‘…is like using a cheese grater or a vacuum clearer to make music, and doesn’t this make singing seem both mundane and heroic?’

Her own career emerged in the aftermath of punk and although the band she formed with partner Ben Watt sounded very unlike punk they considered themselves heirs of the tradition and for that reason refused to go on Top of the Pops to promote their records.

Thorn, in her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, remembers all this, and that many, in Britain’s fractious national cultural obsession with in-groups and out-groups,  couldn’t handle thus rather difficult-to-categorise band. After ‘Eden’ – came out nearly a year after they had recorded it, and after their music had changed,

‘Those who didn’t like what we were doing had marshalled themselves by now and launched an attack and it was mostly based on the recurring accusation  that we were soppy wimps, wallowing in easy-listening blandness,. Making soft tinged soft rock background music for bed wetters. I think that sums it up – have I forgotten anything?

‘Our career might have been heading at full speed towards the mainstream pop world, but I had in no way made my peace with what that meant, so while we were making quite commercial sounding music, we were at the same time trying to uphold the stand taken by the Clash.’

Later, at the time of Britpop wars between Oasis and Bur she preferred Oasis because of Liam Gallagher’s singing:

 ‘a sneering engine of a voice levelled straight at your forehead, the first vocalist since John Lydon to capture that underdog spirit of defiance in all its glory…At the super-slick, stage-managed MTV Awards I attended in New York he rolled onto the stage, spat on the floor, sang at us with lazy, contemptuous fury, and made me proud to be British.

‘But his voice really was the most impressive thing about them…’

The trouble was, Thorn can sing, and sing very well.   Damn.

While ‘unconventional’ singers – Bob Dylan being the proto-example – had always abounded in rock music, punk made a point of, to use a phrase Thorn makes her chapter title on the subject, ‘No Singing’. 

This, though, was itself a contrivance.

‘Listening to Johnny Rotten, you couldn’t possibly believe in his delivery as a “natural” way of singing. It’s completely improbable to picture an early rehearsal, at which the band started up the opening riff, of, say, Pretty Vacant and Johnny just opened up his mouth and that was the sound that came out. No, you could be sure that a lot of thought had gone into that sound; that it was a style of singing that embodied a whole attitude towards singing and music.’

Thorn herself tried emulating  Siouxsie Sioux but ‘realising I could actually sing, it seemed liked an act of the greatest inauthenticity to cover it up’

The idea that a ‘difficult’ voice is more authentic and it is there for a reason, she suggests: it makes people listen more closely, make more effort.

‘And so the non-singing style of punk and its aftermath meant that you could impress upon an audience, and perhaps more to the point, upon music critics, the thing that you were serious, worthy of close scrutiny; that your work was demanding, and by implication, clever.’

It was also  – as Thorn implies rather than makes explicit – something of a charter for posers and frauds.

But more personally, ‘it seemed to be taken for granted by many journalists that there was something suspect about what might be termed “proper” singing.’

The singer, she says, is almost always the way in to the band…something I’m not sure I agree with. Personally I often find the guitars or drums are the way I get into a band, and can almost be indifferent to the singer. The Who is probably the best example I can think of.  

It’s possible, in fact, to find the singer a bit off putting – again the Smiths, a band I’ll return to in a few weeks – being a personal example.

Bedsit Disco Queen – the earlier book, and the more direct memoir – is unlike almost any muso memoir I’ve read. It lacks the usual narrative arc (boy meets guitar; boy gets famous; boy meets drugs; boy has identity/life crisis;  boy cleans up/becomes older/wiser/more pompous and boring).

Thorn lacks the grandiosity for that: there are laughs a-plenty but they are about human foibles (her own and others) rather than of the tv in the hotel swimming pool/amazingly dumb things done while smashed out of brain/oh how we laughed variety.

There are some lovely observations of the ‘strangely infantilising’ and ‘subtly disempowering’ experience of being a musician on tour – ‘yes it is infantilising, but also addictive…on the surface luxurious and lazy, but in the middle of it all you can feel powerless, useless and without choice.’

One example of a growing suspicion the ‘grown ups’ weren’t necessarily all that clued up: the video for the ‘When All’s Well’ in 1985, the clip was made to mate the lyrics ‘when all’s well, my life is like cathedral bells’ with a shot of Thorn standing inside an enormous cross section of on overturned bell, while partner Ben would be stuck down a well..
‘Yes, I know. But the idea went down a storm in the recording company offices……If in the finished version we look a little uncertain as to  what on earth we are doing, I ask you to search your conscience and tell me if you could have done any better.’
The dreary right on 1980s politics gets a chapter to itself, including the much-mocked ‘Red Wedge’ campaign by the British arts community which did so much to prevent Margaret Thatcher being an effective prime minister.
There was an abortive “Song for Labour” project – a sort of “socialist Eurovision Song Contest” she says – and tells of left wing Labour MP Eric Heffer, brought in to adjudicate on the offerings, dismissing what Thorn calls an ‘apocalyptic’ reggae number with the comment that ‘we don’t want that kind of country and western thing.’
The meeting descends into further farce…but, look, I won’t spoil the book. Read the rest. It’s worth it.
Both books are. Thorn is a great, thoughtful, humorous and occasionally spiky read.