Thursday, April 19, 2018

John E. Smith (with illustrations by Annabel Wright) – ‘The Robert Stories’

In the dying days of Melody Maker, I tore one issue to pieces in frustration at the lack of any content worth reading, with the exception of a short interview with Annabel Wright of The Pastels towards the back, which I kept, in which she talked about her connection with Stephen being founded around their being the two ‘committed Swell Maps fans’ in Scotland. Something like that. Now she has illustrated a book of stories by her father about his childhood in a suburb of Birmingham in the 1950s, and I wonder if that background played into her admiration for Swell Maps, who came from Birmingham. In any case, it’s strange (and wonderful) to think of that city having a place in Pastels pre-history, though it makes sense in the light of Wright’s previous city-based artwork. Here, the cranes and riverscapes of Glasgow are replaced by terraces, brickwork, a suburb-centre with a Boots, ’50s cars and buses, Victorian buildings. Some of the drawings use perspective, and are very detailed (like the terraces above); others are more impressionistic (like the graveyard used to play Cowboys and Indians in), or design-oriented (floral aprons are great throughout). There is a river, but it has a concrete bottom, so it’s hardly the Clyde.

In each of these eight brief stories three young boys get up to mischief, and the smallest of them, Robert, who is never the initiator but always a keen participant, always seems to come off worst. John is the one who suggests things to do to while away an hour after school; Alan (his brother) is something like his second in command; Robert (from across the street) is the fall guy, even when there is absolutely no need for one. In ‘Robert and the Matches’, the three of them build a den on some waste ground and pretend to be explorers. One day John brings along some matches so they can have a fire, but it gets out of control and has to be put out by the fire brigade. They escape without getting caught, but just to be on the safe side John gives the matches to Robert, and then:
as his mummy folded his trousers the box of matches dropped out. ‘Where did you get these matches, Robert? You know it is dangerous to play with matches,’ she said sternly.
        ‘John gave them to me when the den caught fire,’ said Robert.
        ‘You naughty boy! You must never play with that John Smith again,’ said his mother. (p. 26)
Other chapter titles include ‘Robert and the Apples’, ‘Robert and the Greenhouse’ and ‘Robert and the Gunpowder’. With each one you sort of know what’s going to happen in advance: Robert’s going to get caught stealing apples / breaking glass / blowing something up, and the joy of the stories is in the unexpected way he invariably finds of doing just that. He has an irresistible knack of landing himself in trouble, when it wasn’t his fault, and when it would be the easiest thing in the world simply not to confess, but this never seems to occur to him. Then again, his mother doesn’t enforce her command that he ‘must never play with that John Smith again’, so he doesn’t suffer too much for his honesty.

The stories are great to read out loud: I tried them out on S., who loved them (in hysterics within 30 seconds most of the time), and my 3-year-old nephew, with whom I got deep into discussion about why the boys had tucked their jumpers in and filled them full of apples, which tends to be his way of absorbing a story.

The sad background (not mentioned in the text) is that John has Motor Neurone Disease, and the book is both a way of preserving his stories, and of raising money for MND Scotland. Available from Monorail.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber – ‘Harpo Speaks!’

Susan Marx’s illustration for chapter 14, ‘Croquemaniacs of the World, Unite!’
On page 89 of his autobiography, while still in his teens, Harpo Marx finds himself in the middle of a murder ballad:
A week later Mrs. Schang finally sobered up. She had absorbed so much gin it stopped having any effect, and this seemed to make her madder than ever before. She came in the back room and grabbed me off the piano stool. ‘Get in the buggy, out front,’ she said. ‘You’re driving tonight.’
        By the time I got my derby and got in the buggy she was already there, waiting for me. Then she told me to run to the kitchen and get a meat knife. When I did, she slit her pocketbook and stuck a pistol and a pint of gin between the cover and the lining. She said to get going, and fast.
        I asked where we were going. Mrs. Schang said, ‘Keep driving east until we get to the Pot O’Gold. I’m going to kill Louie Neidorf.’
        I didn’t know who Louie Neidorf was, and I didn’t care. I had never seen anybody fire a gun before. The prospect was so thrilling I could hardly hold the reins.’
There is a clip of a newspaper story included in the photo section, reporting the arrest of the gang, which Harpo suspects was enabled by a tip-off from Louie Neidorf, who in the event (possibly tipped off himself) kept clear of the Pot O’Gold that evening (it even sounds like the Bucket of Blood from Nick Cave’s ‘Stagger Lee’). This is the most brutal, low-life anecdote in the book, but not the only one which makes you wonder ‘can this possibly be true?’ The other is the story of how Harpo undertook a tour of the U.S.S.R. in 1933, and was asked by the U.S. ambassador to smuggle some papers taped to his leg when he returned home, which he did. This story is even more gripping, set up with a tricky entrance to the country, when he is suspected of bringing in roubles from an unofficial source, so when he leaves, this time with something genuinely to worry about, it is almost unbearably tense. Both of these stories are somewhat at odds with what I thought I knew about Harpo, so I checked in Joe Adamson’s book on the Marx Brothers, and the Russian episode doesn’t feature (at least, it’s not in the index or between Horse Feathers and Duck Soup), but he does say this about his early years:
To hear Harpo tell his life story in the book by Rowland Barber, you would think he wandered through his salty boyhood of gang fights, hostile police, meatless meals, irate landlords, roughhouse saloons, painted women, murderous madams, fast-moving swindlers, killers and thieves in the same serene state of semi-delight he later lavished on the Algonquin Hotel and his grapefruit ranch. (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and sometimes Zeppo, p. 23)
That’s a great book too. Motor-mouthed in a way Harpo Speaks! is not, more in the spirit of Groucho. When it gets to the bad Marx Brothers films at the turn of the 1940s, it becomes hilariously indignant: Adamson’s response to The Big Store is to spend the best part of a page listing other films around the same time with the word ‘big’ in the title. Harpo doesn’t mention The Big Store at all in his book, and doesn’t even talk about the good films very much. He says The Cocoanuts was simply a filmed show, with ad-libs discouraged because they made the crew laugh (a sound-proof booth was installed to get around this*), and the brothers had to be locked up so they didn’t wander off; after that, the next time he mentions a film it’s to say that they were getting into a rut by the time of Duck Soup (what a rut!), from which Irving Thalberg rescued them with A Night at the Opera. That might be it for film mentions. I’d thought he might bring up Love Happy, which was very much his project, or the LPs he made with his son in the 1950s (these are mentioned in an afterword by that son, William Marx). But no, the focus is on the years of touring (powered by his mother, Minnie, who got him a harp to add class to the act), on his great friendship with the critic Alexander Woollcott, and on his marriage to Susan Fleming, at the grand old age of 48. In a way, he’s right: the twenty years in vaudeville before The Cocoanuts came out in 1929 (when Harpo was 40) were what made The Marx Brothers: their characters were already a fait accompli by then.

As well as the Algonquin crowd with whom Harpo spent most of his time towards the end of the 1920s (Woollcott, Herbert Ross, Dorothy Parker et al.), he also visited the Randolph Hearsts, at Sam Simeon, which is interesting for the glimpse it gives of what became Xanadu in Citizen Kane (a better 1941 film than The Big Store):
The dining hall in the San Simeon castle was grand enough to have suited King Arthur and all his knights and all their ladies. When you came into dinner, ten-foot logs were blazing in the fireplace and hundreds of candles were burning giant silver candelabras. Candlelight flickered against the historic battle flags that flew from the beams, against the gleaming top of the seventy-foot-long banquet table, and on the little islands of glassware that dotted the length of the table. Each of these little islands was composed of a bottle of ketchup, a bottle of horseradish, a diner-type sugar dispenser, a water glass full of paper napkins, and pepper shakers in the shapes of Mickey and Minnie mouse. (p. 293)
All of which is barely to scratch the surface of this expansive, warm-hearted book. Harpo often alludes to himself as the listener of the Algonquin set, and his book is full of interest in the people around him (he attributes the same quality to Woollcott), and full of the practical jokes he played on them too. He seems to have been someone people liked to have around, who could lighten any situation. He’s such a joy to watch on screen, but this book only adds to his charm: it’s a relief to discover he didn’t have his head in the clouds all the time, and that his persona was a way of dealing with (and improving) the world, rather than a way of avoiding it.
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* A myth, according to Wikipedia, which points out that all talkies used sound-proof booths.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

John Wyndham – ‘The Day of the Triffids’

Talking of apocalypses, here’s one from 66 years ago, before the Cuban Missile Crisis, but after Hiroshima, and very definitely of the modern technological era. Rockets have led to satellites, and these, thirty-odd years before Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ project, led to speculation:
From time to time there would be a panicky flare-up of expostulation when reports circulated that as well as satellites with atomic heads there were others with such things as crop diseases, cattle diseases, radioactive dusts, viruses, and infections not only of familiar kinds, but brand-new sorts recently thought up in laboratories, all floating around up there.
Factor number two feels more contemporary still:
Every year we were pushing the northern limit of growth for food plants a little farther back. New fields were growing quick crops on what had historically been simply tundra or barren land. […] For food was then our most pressing problem, and the progress of the regeneration schemes and the advance of the cultivation lines on the maps was followed with almost as much attention as an earlier generation had paid to battle fronts.
It is technology which allows this expansion to happen, and the novel’s narrator, Bill Masen, is a biologist working in a related area. His speciality is triffids, tall walking plants with lethal stings, but also source of a new wonder oil which has replaced fish oil on the food market. They have been around since his boyhood, when he was stung by a small one, and are, he says, ‘the outcome of a series of ingenious biological meddlings’ (Russian meddlings, he hints). The impetus behind triffid farming is commercial rather than existential, though: it is the fact that triffid oil can undercut fish oil that brings it to dominance, and brings about all the triffid nurseries which cause so many problems when it happens.

I was surprised that it – the moment when the world stops functioning – is not caused by the triffids at all. Green lights are seen in the sky, and for everyone who does see them they cause blindness. The blind are easily picked off by triffids, who can feed on the bodies once they have decayed sufficiently. There is also a mysterious plague which wipes out a large proportion of those who escape the triffids. For a monster talking over the world, the triffids are having an awful lot handed to them on a plate, I thought. This, though, is the point: technology creates many dangerous things, manageable under normal circumstances, but take away that crutch, and they can get out of control. Bill suspects that both the wave of blindness and the plague (a bit like typhoid, but with a shorter incubation period) are the result of the weapons satellites malfunctioning. The triffids simply take advantage.

Within a very few weeks, England (and we are to presume the wider world) is reduced to a skeleton population of scavenging survivors, who live initially on supplies raided from cities, but later move to the countryside to avoid the plague. While Bill is still in London, he faces a dilemma to either help the blind to scavenge, and prolong their lives by a short while, or desert them with an organised group of mostly sighted people, with the idea of setting up a community than can survive long-term. He chooses the latter, but is kidnapped with the rest of the party in a raid organised by Wilfred Coker, who forces them all to look after a group of the blind, handcuffed to minders. Once forced, he has enough humanity to continue to look after his group even when free of the minders, abandoning them only when plague gets them and it is pointless to stay. Coker realises the error of his hard-line tactics, but there is another group which continues militant, using Brighton as its base, and intending to build up an army in order to conquer other depleted countries at the first opportunity. This is the real cynicism of the book: not that technology can go wrong, but that even reduced to a stump, the human race would still contain that contingent (about 5%, Bill reckons) convinced that it knew best and was entitled to stamp its authority on the majority.

In London, Bill meets and falls in love with Josella Playton, notorious author of ‘Sex is My Adventure’ (perhaps the most modern touch of all – that, and the gentrified farm house in the commuter belt), but loses her during Coker’s raid. Much of the rest of the book is the story of his search for her, but late on comes this description of a blind man taking a walk to the village shop, which is the most effective account of triffid terror in the book:
Most of the next day Dennis devoted to contriving a kind of helmet for himself. He had wire net only of large mesh so that he had to construct it of several layers overlapped and tied together. It took some time, but, equipped with this and a pair of heavy duty gauntlet gloves, he was able to start out for the village late in the day. A triffid had struck at him before he was three paces from the house. He groped for it until he found it, and twisted its stem for it. A minute or two later another sting thudded across his helmet. He could not find that triffid to grapple with it, though it made half a dozen slashes before it gave up. He found his way to the toolshed, and thence across to the lane, encumbered now with three large balls of gardening twine which he paid out as he went to guide him back.
There is plenty that is daft here: not least, mobile plants that kill for food but can’t actually eat it until it has decayed, by which time they are probably somewhere else (though Bill does say that in common with insects, ‘Separately they have something which looks slightly like intelligence; collectively it looks a great deal more like it’). People committing suicide on a mass scale immediately they realise they are blind. The blindness, caused by looking at the sky at the wrong time, affecting quite such a large proportion of the population (weren’t any of them inside?) There is definitely something in this, though:
My first tentative trip [to London] I took alone, returning with cases of triffid-bolts, paper, engine parts, the Braille books and writing machine that Dennis so much desired, the luxuries of drinks, sweets, records, and yet more books for the rest of us. A week later Josella came with me on a more practical search for clothing.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Onion Club – ‘American Apocalypse Now!’ at Hospitalfield Arts, Arbroath, 27th January


In the week that Mark E. Smith died, we ventured out for (I think) our third winter Onion Club show of recent years, at the best venue they play, a sort of mini-castle with a chandelier and a huge oil painting (or at least its frame) visible through a first storey window, and rooms with curved walls which snuggle together to make a courtyard. The room where they play, on the ground floor, has a low ceiling and tastefully lit stone walls. I imagine they probably live there all the time, playing non-stop, and every so often have the public around to see how they’re getting along. Which era they’ve reached, what spin they’re putting on things. As previously reported, their touchstone era is the 1920s, and they interpret songs from other times and places as though all times and places were the Weimar Republic. I am reaching the end of my historical tether here, but a quick search throws up:
Like few others, the names Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht are synonymous with the radical politics and cultural innovation of the Weimar Republic. Most famously with their hit Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), but also with numerous other collaborative pieces, the duo represented everything that the Nazi regime declared its enemy. The Jewish Weill and the Marxist Brecht were thus some of the earliest and most obvious targets of Nazi cultural oppression. (From holocaustmusic.ort.org).
In taking on the State Of America And How It’s Going To Kill Us All Before Trump’s First Term Is Up, via a cabaret show, The Onion Club are connecting with a powerful moment of twentieth century history. When the public got to choose between glitter and gold, and chose the wrong one. Clearly the public has not learned a damn thing, in the intervening years.

Opening with a mournful, shattered take on Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Going to a Town’ (‘I’m so tired of you, America’ the dominant refrain), they embarked upon a more sombre apocalypse than might have been expected. Much of the tone of the show, though there were plenty of fun moments, was quietly regretful, the big surprise for me how beautiful they made Radiohead’s ‘Lucky’: I’m not a fan, but it was great, funereal, lost, delicate as dew. And, as, S. pointed out, ‘pull me out of the aircrash’ works as a retrospective 9/11 reference. I’m also not a fan of Depeche Mode or The Doors, but wonders were done with ‘Personal Jesus’ and ‘The End’, for the first of which Pauline became a hectoring preacher, here’s a bit of her intro:
The bad news is you are all damned to eternal hellfire and perpetual torment on account of making diabolical deals with the devil who is walking among us on this earth, who is among us this very evening in the so-called hallowed halls of the arts, which as we know is a breeding ground for lefties, liberals, lesbians and pinko faggots [delighted yelps from the audience here]. The good news is, ah can save you. […] You just need to form an orderly line and get your CREDIT CARDS READY, ALRIGHT!
Stephen pared back his piano playing to thumped notes, and added some extra bass fizz with the Microkorg at his elbow. The preacher bluesed it up for all the cash he could charm or scare out of his congregation. Meanwhile ‘The End’ was a plink plonky vamp with a chilling interlude in which New York was glimpsed, after the bomb. No, wait, after the Martians’ death rays. Of course.

As well as the Microkorg, there was another synth stage left, just past the angel wings, used for helicopter noises after ‘Crack of Doom’ and in the run up to ‘Lucky’. This was quite a radical departure for a group that is usually hard line piano, singing and dressing up. That, and the fact that none of the songs in the set (as far as I could tell) pre-dated the 1960s felt like a shift of approach: facing up to a more modern world, perhaps. After the heavy stuff, and the religious stuff (‘God is in the House’ and ‘God’s Away on Business’ remained from previous sets) Pauline donned an American flag and a big gold star for Randy Newman’s ‘Political Science’, its jokey tone horribly close to the actual political discourse of Trump:
We give them money, but are they grateful?
No, they’re spiteful and they’re hateful
They don’t respect us, so let’s surprise them
Let’s drop the big one and pulverise them
What followed as an encore was anything but jokey: John Grant’s ‘Glacier’, a stately and defiant unravelling of the order of things (specifically, the straight, theocratic order of things), a plea not to blindly follow, to trust your own convictions. The personal a rejection of the political (at least, as politics is now). The image of the glacier as pain, ‘carving out deep valleys / And creating spectacular landscapes’ is beautiful. I didn’t know it, clearly I need to listen to more John Grant. In a prolonged instrumental section at the end, Pauline handed out some felt pens for people to write on her arms and back with, bringing the audience in directly at the end of a vulnerable song. I guess this was a counter to its individualism: once the ‘fuckers’ of the lyric have been rejected, it’s important to rebuild too. After the rejection, or after the apocalypse.

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Appendix

Links accumulated writing this review: The Tiger Lillies – ‘Crack of Doom’, Kurt Weill bio, Laurie Anderson – ‘O Superman’, Allen Ginsberg – ‘America’, Father John Misty – ‘When the God of Love Returns There’ll be Hell to Pay’ (lyrics), ‘Pirate Jenny’, Randy Newman – ‘Political Science’ (lyrics), John Grant – ‘Glacier’ (lyrics), ‘Glacier’ (Guardian piece & video).

Misgivings: Is it fair to pile on the links to Weimar when there were no songs from that period, and their sound has moved on? Probably not. But also, in the opposite direction:



Goodnight, Mark E.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Motorpoint Arena, Nottingham, 28th September

My sister and her husband went to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on Thursday. She and I were always fans, and the way she describes the concert, it sounds like practically a religious experience this time around. The videos below (not by her, but of the same concert) look like nothing so much as a huge gospel gathering. It looks intense. It looks amazing. Over to her:
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We went to see Nick Cave last night, R. and I, in Nottingham and it was just the most incredible experience. It was at a large arena, similar to the NEC. Browsing the merchandise before the show, which consisted of the usual ‘Loverman’ tea towels, some recent records and a selection of accessories including a rather hideous Nick Cave doll, R. purchased a leather backed Bad Seed keyring to replace the fabric O’Neill one he’s had for the last decade or so. Wow, I thought.

We sat waiting in our plastic seats with trays of chips that cost four pounds each. I was on the end of a row, which meant I could swing my legs over the side of my chair and perch my feet comfortably on an aisle step. We were quite far back but happy enough with our spot. Why would you, when you’re over a certain age, want to stand up for two hours, hot and uncomfortable, we mused? I’ll tell you why a bit later on.

It was dark. The stage lit up. The Bad Seeds took their places. Warren Ellis’ violin started screeching ominously. My hero was coming.
Here I come now, here I come
I hear you been out there looking for something to love
        (‘Anthrocene’)
There he was. The sharp tailored suit. The hair combed back like a raven’s wing. He sat briefly for a few gentle piano chords but then he went straight to his crowd. And there he remained for the majority of the night, leaning in to the fans and holding their outstretched hands.

People shouted to him, wanting to engage him in conversation, but he said very little. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said genuinely. ‘I’m shy.’ A group near the stage broke into the happy birthday song. A quick Google search later and we realised that six days ago Nick Cave had turned sixty, which was hard to believe. He accepted a card from a fan, opened it and put it on the piano. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘That’s very kind.’ He wasn’t shy in his stage performance though. During ‘Stagger Lee’, he stage dived into the crowd arriving nose to nose with a group of burly men just in time to scream: ‘I'll crawl over fifty good pussies just to get one fat boy's asshole’! A different skill set, I suppose.

It must be a wonderful thing to look back at such an expansive career and pick out songs for your set list. R. had said to me before the show that Nick Cave is one of the only musicians he can think of who has got better and better. I take his point and when immersed in the beauty of ‘Distant Sky’, with stillness across the arena like a collective quiet intake of breath, you know that this is as good as it gets. But then, it can’t get any better than ‘The Ship Song’ or ‘The Mercy Seat’ or ‘Tupelo’ either. Old songs, new songs, violence and tenderness: an eclectic mix of brilliant music that flowed seamlessly.

The encore was incredible. It started with ‘The Weeping Song’, in which Cave encouraged rather ridiculous fast hand clapping from the audience and then stopped and started it like a conductor. He disappeared from view several times, diving into the crowd. He finally reappeared like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, leading hundreds of fans onto the stage by the power of his music. He then performed ‘Stagger Lee’ which, of course, they all went crazy for. That’s why it was a good idea to buy a standing ticket!

The very last song of the night was ‘Push The Sky Away’. He abandoned the fans on the stage at this point and, to my delight, came our way. He leapt around the arena from empty chairs to steps. Could this man really be sixty years old? The standing area was quite empty towards the back, especially now that there were a good many folk on the stage. ‘C’mon, c’mon,’ he beckoned urgently, gathering a new crowd at his feet. I jumped up of course and rushed down to him. I looked up and it was the closest we had ever been. He stood above me, his arms outstretched singing:
And some people say it’s just rock and roll
Oh but it gets you right down to your soul
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