Monday, April 28, 2008

Björk, Wolverhampton Civic Hall, 25th April

Back at my sister’s house after the gig, Vessel on the TV, going through the ‘are you obsessed with Björk?’ quiz in the book that came with Vespertine. ‘Of course I’m obsessed with Björk,’ she declares, irritated that anyone could suggest it was open to question. But she doesn’t have the Japanese release of Debut, or the pink vinyl Post. She pretends not to know her surname, in order to have me say it, several times, with increasing uncertainty (‘what’s that? “Goodman’s Dottir”?’) Here’s one though, question 76: ‘Have you been to a Björk or Sugarcubes concert?


‘2 concerts?’


‘4 or more? 2 or more in the same week? 2 or more in the same week and in different cities?’

‘Oh, come on!’

Maybe we’re not so obsessed. But we do love Björk and, strange to say, had never seen her play before. Which made this gig the Most Exciting Thing Ever.

What also helped with this were the massive vertical flags hanging above and to the sides of the stage, decorated with drawings of animals (a frog, a rabbit, a crocodile) and one side view of something’s skeleton. It felt a bit like being in Robin Hood, about to see a jousting competition. Instead of which, at length, tumbled onstage a hyperactive warrior brass band (Wonderbrass), some electronic musician types, and Björk herself in fierce face paint invoking ‘Turmoil! Carnage!’ This was the Most Exciting Thing Ever, too. She wasn’t joking, was she, when she said that Volta was a return to performance, after the relative calm of its two predecessors? My favourite Björk album was always Homogenic (I remember seeing the ‘Bachelorette’ video for the first time and thinking, ‘there is a Scott Walker’), and from the set she played, she seems to agree: ‘Hunter’ came second, the lights cooling from their angry red to reveal Björk’s dress to be yellow, flowing like one of Beefheart’s capes. ‘If travel is searching / And home what’s been found’ is so perfect as a statement / question of her intent. We are also blessed with ‘Jóga’, ‘Unravel’ and ‘Pluto’. No ‘Bachelorette’, sadly, but a fine ‘Vertebrae by Vertebrae’, which is kind of the same thing, crushed unpleasantly together with The Drift. I love that song.

It was possibly during ‘Pagan Poetry’ that Björk was one second dancing around and the next spinning silly string Spiderman webs twenty feet across the stage. And was it ‘Hyperballad’ that had the whole height of the hall illuminated with reflective strips bathed in a golden glow? Any light aircraft which might have chanced to pass through (it wouldn’t have been that surprising) would have been safe from radar detection. There are probably many big pop shows around, with many daft effects, but how has it come about that there is only one properly massive pop star left who considers it her duty to fuck with the formula at every turn, to be big and bright, brash and subtle? Shouldn’t that be what they all do? Or did I just miss them, wrapped up in books? Whether or not, The Gummy Stumps would not have stood a chance against this onslaught. ‘Hyperballad’ getting thoroughly raved up towards the end, subsequently joined by ‘Pluto’ and the song the stage set is all about, ‘Declare Independence’. For which the large TV screens at the front of the stage showed an overhead shot of a live! real life! ReacTable creating a live real life exciting pop noise, and I remembered back a few years to when I thought I was going to be a scientist (don’t laugh) and came across the same invention, or at least a paper on it, in an altogether more academic context. Björk is probably the only person who could bring the two worlds together. Cherish her.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Charlotte Brontë – ‘The Professor’

S. read this recently and was surprised to find how much she disliked it. The problem was the narrator, William Crimsworth, whom she found self-absorbed and xenophobic (not good qualities in a teacher abroad). Charlotte being one of my utter utter heroes, I wanted to set her straight about this, but it seems she has a point. Here is Crimsworth on ‘the youth of Brabant’ (in Belgium):

Their intellectual faculties were generally weak, their animal propensities strong; thus there was at once an impotence and a kind of inert force in their natures; they were dull, but they were also singularly stubborn, heavy as lead and, like lead, most difficult to move. (p. 97)

Or again:

both had the true Flamand physiognomy, where intellectual inferiority is marked in lines none can mistake (p. 99)

This kind of attitude is apparent whenever Crimsworth has occasion to describe his pupils: he despairs of nearly all of them, attributing their shortcomings to their non-Englishness. Unless he’s attributing them to the shapes of their skulls, as in this assessment:

I wonder that anyone, looking at the girl’s head and countenance, would have received her under their roof. She had precisely the same shape of skull as Pope Alexander the Sixth; her organs of benevolence, veneration, conscientiousness, adhesiveness, were singularly small, those of self-esteem, firmness, destructiveness, combativeness, preposterously large… (p. 129)

Phrenology talk, of course. What in the world is an organ of adhesiveness?

In his brief preface, Brontë’s widower Arthur Nicholls justifies publishing The Professor on the grounds that it ‘is in most respects unlike’ (p. 38) the other novel based on her experience of teaching in Brussels, Villette. This is true, to some extent. Both novels feature a protagonist who becomes financially unstuck in England, who travels to Brussels in search of an alternative career, who quickly finds work teaching, and who falls in love. The big difference is the gender of the protagonist: in Villette, Lucy Snowe follows Charlotte’s own course of working in a girls’ school, and falling for an authoritarian colleague (in real life, Constantin Heger). In The Professor, the roles are reversed, and the reader is in the company of the cranky authoritarian from the outset: Crimsworth, an uneasy mixture of Heger and Brontë, travels to Brussels and gets a job teaching in a boys’ school, which is then expanded to include teaching afternoons at the girls’ school next door, in order that he can meet, teach and fall in love with Mdlle Henri, who teaches embroidery there but is also paying for English lessons. The gender / character reversal thus requires a more complicated and less plausible plot, whilst abandoning the reader’s sympathy. It’s an odd choice.

It is worth bearing in mind, though, that sympathy itself is nearly always Brontë’s theme: it is invariably achieved gradually, against the odds, and is the highest prize life can offer. In making Crimsworth basically unlikable, she is lengthening those odds too far, but it is done in order to pull him back again, to redeem him with the love of a good woman. And it is not just the fact of this love, but the nature of it, inseparable from the build up, inseparable from the shortcomings of the lovers, which makes it touching. When he goes around to propose, he finds on Mdlle Henri’s desk a poem she’s been writing, which the notes tell us that Charlotte wrote ‘while at school in Brussels in 1843’ (p. 310). It is ‘not exactly the writer’s own experience, but a composition by portions of that experience suggested.’ (p. 243) explains Crimsworth; so perhaps it is Charlotte’s experience, even if it is not Mdlle Henri’s? Or just another version of her fantasy? It depicts a familiar situation, in any case: the overbearing and exacting teacher inspiring love in the submissive pupil. The details do differ from the story The Professor has just told: the pupil falls ill, the teacher agonises, desperate for her recovery; she returns to his classroom too soon and he sends her away again, but when she is strong enough he is as before, more demanding of her than of any other pupil. This intellectual kinship is an important part of the sympathy Brontë builds. In The Professor itself Crimsworth’s blatant preference makes him seem a bad teacher. Finally the speaker in the poem is forced by circumstances to leave the school, and the teacher passionately expresses his longing for her return. In context this re-imagining of the story is refreshing, but is again flawed by the assumption that the reader will understand the pupil’s love for a harsh teacher: it appears, as it probably was, one sided. Heger would have to wait until his portrayal in Villette (one wonders if he read it?) as M. Paul Emmanuel before Charlotte would succeed in portraying him as someone who deserved love.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Gummy Stumps (and The Breeders), Glasgow, 8th April

The Gummy Stumps have it in for the 1990s. They want to kick its dick into the dirt, and shuffle smoothly away, banging out rampage on a two-string guitar (always a winning idea), bringing down the past by naming and shaming its heroes. You were rich once, before your head exploded. But now, ol’ AMC, ol’ Breeders, you’re all washed up, you ain’t nothin’. ’Cause for every comeback roll around tour this city hosts from now on, there will lie in wait, at a vastly smaller venue nearby, The Gummy Stumps, here to shimmy on your grave, bark up bile, tear you to shreds, shred you to tears. It could possibly be a coincidence, but that’s two out of two so far for me this year.

Which wasn’t at all what I was expecting. The last time I saw The Breeders, at 2002’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, they were incredible, over-the-top exuberant, charging all over theirs and The Amps’ catalogues. Any set with ‘Tipp City’ in it ought to be unstoppable; it featured yesterday, a tad too mid-paced, didn’t quite get me going. ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ and ‘Iris’ had fire in them, but (and this wasn’t actually a bad thing) it got undercut by the squeaky Tanya Donnelly impersonations Kim and Kelley took turns at where her harmonies used to be. Poor Tanya, ‘Honeychain’ is so lovely. Maybe it’s all to do with this new supposedly quiet LP of theirs. All I’ve heard is the single, which broods rather than strides, as ‘Little Fury’ did. And where, pointed out Chris, is any of Title TK at all? ‘We’re Gonna Rise’ has a sumptuous warm glow about it, but in a barn like the ABC, y’know… there was still a warm glow, it just wasn’t very exciting.

All of which is to bitch far out of proportion, for who could really complain about an evening with the Deals, and ‘Cannonball’ (‘I always wondered how they did that’, said Rocket as Kim switched to the distortion mic for the ‘Awooo’s), ‘Pacer’, ‘Divine Hammer’. It was fun, it was fine, the LP is probably fantastic. But just a little later, across the road at Nice ’n’ Sleazy, The Gummy Stumps rode their own groove, at the edge of something only they could see, and the newness of it, the unerring drive to clatter and roar, were more rock ’n’ roll than Kim Deal.

Chris’ Gummy Stumps photos are here.

Friday, April 04, 2008

When Yer Twenty Two

In the Proust biography I’m reading at the moment, the startling thing is the man’s dedication to gathering a certain kind of experience – heightened, precious, fleeting – then ‘translating’ it into art. His vision is extraordinarily pure; his life is neurotic and painful. Along the way he falls in love about once every eighteen months. Most of these attachments are traumatic in one way or another, and most provide material for In Search of Lost Time. Just at the moment he’s taking six years out from writing fiction to translate Ruskin (it is a little slow), in which task he gets immersed without losing sight of the fact that he’s not actually doing anything creative. There’s a sense of things falling into place: source material, and the incredible digressive, luminous style for which he needed to assimilate Ruskin. He uses things up, and (eventually) gives them back transfigured.

Which is as pretentious a way as any to introduce my own brush with creativity, ten years old this month, an album with a dodgy title (Loss Angeles) and an opening song so down it’s almost guaranteed to discourage further investigation. It picks up fairly quickly after that, but still. And, believe it or not, I did what Proust does: I took the two women my heart was bounding hopelessly around after at the time, and sort of spliced them together – in song, I hasten to add – and wound up with quite a good record. Of which I am still really proud. Around the time I was making it, at the expense of an Eighteenth Century Literature course and sleeping, my love of The Pastels was at its height, and I marvelled that they could make such great records without any of this angst nonsense. I wished I could do without it too, but when it did disappear along with the appearance of the lovely S. (who is so worth singing about), the songs seemed to go with it.

Maybe if I say here, in public, that I’m going to write some non-grumpy songs, it might help me to actually do it. If it does, I’ll post them. In the meantime, happy birthday, if you please, to this:

Update: Tim / Richard's inlay card for the cassette:

Loss Angeles (front)

Loss Angeles (back)

Credits read: ‘All songs by Chris except ‘In My Eyes’ which is by Catriona (who also plays flute on ‘Tremolo’) and Chris, and ‘God Rest Her Soul’, which is by Chris S. and Chris. Completed April 1998.’

‘God Rest Her Soul’ was subsequently re-named ‘Tunnel Vision’, which was what Chris S., whose digital transmutation of Sonic Youth into Lady Di’s car crash constitutes most of the song, wanted to call it.

Further update: stream the whole thing below.

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