Friday, February 18, 2011

A dissenting clique, a subway sect

Vic Godard made a record last year, did you notice? His first set of new songs since 2002’s Sansend, and his best since The End of the Surrey People. The artwork is so bad, it’s a puzzle: if this is what it looks like, how much care can possibly have gone into its creation? The songs are so good, though, they make the cover look like sabotage. Which might be a recurring theme: the back cover of What’s the Matter, Boy? is light years ahead of the front, for instance. This week I ordered Vic’s Blackpool EP: the cover is lovely, and a couple of well-designed postcards accompanied it. It’s not like Subway Sect have got no style, but maybe they think it’s worth more when no-one’s looking. Because no-one’s looking? Look up ‘sect’, I guess. Faction: a dissenting clique. We come as aliens. The new album is a rough ’n’ tumble state of the nation address (‘Back in the Community’, ‘Rhododendron Town’) interspersed with joyously offbeat interjections from other planets (‘That Train’, ‘Et Meme’), winding up with the Sansend recap ‘Music of a Werewolf’, which sounds more like vindication than apology. Not that Sansend is anything to apologise for (e.g. ‘Americana → Fire’ is one of Vic’s best songs), but I’m guessing its clunky beats didn’t go down well with all those old punks. A typographically obtuse note on the back of the Sexual Objects’ Cucumber reads:
"6 "WIPE YOUR TAPES WITH LIGHTNIN'%, ...Paul Reekie said that..,.
Maybe that is a tribute (Reekie died last year), or perhaps it takes in the Sect too, because another note quotes ‘Stool Pigeon’:
we can still picnic
It also turns out that Reekie’s is the Scottish voice running through Sansend, conjuring up in a few brief clips some kind of radical hard as nails poetry discussion in the pub group. A dissenting clique, a subway sect. The kind of thing Hugh MacDiarmid probably went in for.

What I am getting at is this: Vic Godard and Subway Sect play Dundee at Dexter’s, Castle Street on 13th March. Doors 7:30PM, tickets from Groucho’s. Spectorbullets are supporting, and a couple of plays of their album suggests they are very much worth turning up for too.


Update: I’ve added the gig poster above (thanks Andy), and should point out that tickets are also available from We Got Tickets.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Garen Ewing – ‘The Rainbow Orchid, Volume Two’

It seems a long time since volume one of The Rainbow Orchid, but actually it is only eighteen months since I read it. The branch of Borders just down the road used to stock it, along with other comic albums in the same vein, and I had fun for a while (until Borders collapsed, three months later) catching up with Cinebook’s reprints of Lucky Luke and Iznogoud. There is an interesting interview with Garen I heard around the same time, which shows the range of his influences. It led me to Edgar P. Jacobs’ The Yellow M, and a volume of Chaland’s Freddy Lombard stories, which was much cheaper in the French edition, and a bookmark reveals that I only made it to page nineteen. But that was far enough to notice that, although the style of art is looser, Freddy looks just like Tintin. There is nobody like him in The Yellow M, but there the art is very close to HergĂ©’s. The plot is pure hokum, Sherlock Holmes meets Scooby Doo (taking in the crown jewels, ancient Egyptian iconography and mind control), but the artwork is meticulous, delighting in architecture and tailored clothing. T., who is involved in publishing The Rainbow Orchid, was careful to describe Garen’s influences in terms of the ligne claire style, rather than HergĂ© alone, which I went ahead and ignored in my post (which, er, isn’t very good, is it?) but he was right, of course. The Rainbow Orchid is a bid to broaden British interest in this French style of comic book beyond Asterix and Tintin. It would be lovely to see it happen. You want to help out with that, Waterstone’s?

Volume one ended with our heroes, Julius Chancer (‘historical research assistant’), Lily Lawrence (‘silent film actress’) and Nathaniel Crumpole (‘movie publicity agent’), being flown from France to Karachi in a small biplane by a stunt pilot. They have narrowly escaped the clutches of Urkaz Grope’s henchmen, who must stop them from finding the impossibly rare rainbow orchid. Lily’s father, Lord Reginald, has foolishly bet his title and estate on the result of an orchid competition, and Grope already has a black orchid in his possession. Lord Reginald may have been drugged before he agreed to the bet – there is plenty of hokum in this story, too. With the scene already set, volume two is free to concentrate on the thrill of the chase, and plot developments are more subtle. It is suggested that the military want the rainbow orchid for their own purposes, and there are various dark hints about Grope’s ultimate goal. He doesn’t need the money – crates and trucks emblazoned ‘Grope Bananas’ and ‘Grope Grain’ in Europe and India indicate that he has business interests everywhere. He has the journalist William Pickle kidnapped, then has his growing army of guards dress up in knights’ tunics and gold-coloured masks, like he’s accumulating an army of medieval cybermen. There is some nice character development too – a slight hint at flirtation between Julius and Lily, and Nathaniel Crumpole’s burgeoning interest in animals. He buys a camel, rides an elephant and sneaks a snow leopard cub into his knapsack, antagonising its mother somewhat. No longer the cynical Hollywood opportunist of volume one, he has become an endearingly loopy presence.

The artwork is beautiful, as before, maybe more so. The first few pages take us to the Natural History Museum, where the architectural grandeur of the first two panels slips without dialogue into an awkward meeting between a spy and the man he is following. Stuffed gorillas, fish and dolphins appear to gaze out from behind glass, irrelevant to the sense of the scene but giving it an edgy absurdity whilst gently plugging curation (if the subtext of the last volume was the media creating its own story, this time it is the folly of failing to preserve historical artefacts). The palette, surprisingly, sticks to its muted browns and dark reds across the shift from Europe to India. Most of the Indian action takes place outside, and architecture is replaced with craggy mountains which remind me of nothing so much as King Ottokar’s Sceptre (sorry!) There is a train in India, too, which seems to be a favourite subject of Ewing’s, but here it is shown piecemeal, and from all sorts of interesting angles. Volume one’s monolithic panels of A Train, A Ship, A Car, An Aeroplane, have largely been phased out in favour of smaller panels which do more than one thing at once, and are better at moving the story on. I wonder where it will go next?

Monday, February 07, 2011

Kristin Hersh – ‘Paradoxical Undressing’

Night swimming is mania, wanting to learn everything and live everywhere is mania, feeling warm all the time (the poor band must’ve been so cold), hearing songs, restlessness (my inability to lie on a floor or sit in a chair), a disregard for the future, seeing things that aren’t there, insomnia, racing out into storms, needing to fuzzify the world in order to focus, the Doghouse episode, hating buildings, ranting all night about how bad bad radio is (the poor band must’ve been so tired), thinking I have a calling, that I’m on a mission… these are all symptoms of a long-term manic state. How embarrassing. So what’s left? What’s ‘me’? Anything? (p. 150)
This list, halfway through the Kristin Hersh memoir some of us have been dying to read for several years now, is a pretty good summary of her activities up to this point. It’s 1985, and she’s at college in Providence, where her father teaches, and where he introduces her to the ex-movie star turned mature student Betty Hutton. Betty is 64, slightly lost in the past, and her stories about Judy Garland and Cary Grant could easily be taken for delusions. Kristin is 18, drifting between college, a squat, friends’ floors, and the rock clubs her band have been playing at for several years already. With an endearing lack of tact, her father crows, ‘It’s perfect! Kristin, you’re too young to make any friends here and Betty, you’re too old!’ (p. 16). He turns out to be right: the two are inseparable, studying together (more chatting really) for entire afternoons in the library, locked in the toilet and shouting ‘Occupied!’ in response to every knock. Betty remarks, ‘Singing on the toilet! If Mr DeMille could see me now!’ (p. 17) and it’s pure Sunset Boulevard.

Betty is overbearing, if fond, and her criticisms of Kristin’s lack of ‘sparkle’ provide an illuminating contrast to Kristin’s actual intention as a performer: not to entertain, but to disappear, to make way for the songs. It is a staple of her interviews that the songs come to her from outside, sometimes as unwelcome physical manifestations, and that all she does is transcribe them – which she must, to get rid of the wolves (‘Mania’), mechanical bees (‘Buzz’), and especially the snake (she doesn’t say, but – ‘Cottonmouth’?). She takes a detour backwards from 1985 to explain how the songs came about. A car knocked her off her bike and drove away; Kristin ended up in hospital. The accident sounds horrific, and is described… dispassionately? Not exactly. It’s hard to describe the description. There is a weight to it, at the same time she’s cracking jokes, taking notes: ‘Flying through the air in vivid slow motion, thinking, so this is what this feels like.’ (p. 74), or ‘I’d never seen blood pour into a sewer before (it looks really cool)’ (p. 75). Zero self-pity, but all the same an unblinking acknowledgement that she is messed up: ‘The front of my head was hamburger and blood with two blue eyes staring out.’ The same balance applies later on to a breakdown that leads to a suicide attempt, and medication. But those terms are crude, I feel bad for using them. Kristin’s account is precise, it is only what it is. She won’t even allow that suicidal people are necessarily sad: ‘Couldn’t we just be finding solutions to our own personal equations? Writing the end of our stories?’ (p. 149). The songs, anyway, began after the car / bike crash, like this:
A few days later, lying in my hospital bed, I heard my first song: a metallic whining, like industrial noise, and a wash of ocean waves, layered with humming tones and wind chimes. (p. 76)
For days she’s sure the sound is external, from the TV next door. It’s only when she goes next door and hears the TV making a completely different noise that she realises, ‘The noise is mine’ (p. 77). It brings colours with it, too. The songs are intensified by the ‘Doghouse episode’, a brief stay at an apartment with ‘Doghouse’ painted on the door. The building is normal, but somehow evil, and it infects Kristin’s songs. She doesn’t live there long, but carries the experience with her. And then one day, walking down Angell Street in Providence, she is accosted by a mohawked student with pamphlets, who ‘stopped me to talk about “killing God”. I was intrigued. Killing God is way better than saving whales.’ He continues:
‘Did you know that religious wars kill more people than political ones?’ I didn’t answer; I wanted him to hurry up and tell me how to kill God. ‘Well… they do. Historically, that is. And it’s because we as a species have yet to rise above the church and take responsibility for our own actions.’ I waited. Kill God, c’mon. ‘For example, say you’re a smack freak –’ (p. 118)
So this is how my favourite song got started! A ‘fake song’ at first (I think this means a consciously-written one), that was supposed to be funny. ‘The fake part attached itself to a piece of Doghouse evil and took off, came back horrifying’ (p. 129). Presto, ‘Hate My Way’. Come the recording sessions at the end of the book, Gil Norton is similarly astonished at the genesis of the only song in the world which could possibly follow ‘Hate My Way’:
        ‘My roommate, Vicky, painted some cool stuff on a box when she was moving and some of it turned up in a song.’
        He looks stunned. ‘Really? “Vicky’s Box” is a song about Vicky’s box? A box owned by someone named Vicky?’ (p. 290)
Gil is lovely, and goes to great lengths to get the astonishing performances of Throwing Muses out of Kristin (comforting, understanding lengths). Gary, who produced the demo which interested Ivo Watts-Russell at 4AD (AKA The Doghouse Cassette), is lovely too, providing support, transport and sustenance through the post-breakdown days of lithium-shaky performances and then pregnancy. Loveliest of all though is Muses drummer Dave Narcizo, who enters into all… well quite a lot of Kristin’s foibles (not wearing glasses in order to ‘fuzzify the world’, not wearing a coat because she was ‘warm all the time’), and tries sometimes to reign her in:
Dave unzips his coat to show me how it works. ‘See? We can still wear T-shirts but if we wear our T-shirts underneath coats, winter won’t hurt!’ (p. 93)
I was trying to imagine what this book would be like for someone who doesn’t love the songs. Then I stopped because I wouldn’t want to be that someone. Thank you, Kristin. Keep them (and the books) coming.


Newly-performed Throwing Muses songs to accompany the book are here.
See Betty Hutton in The Perils of Pauline.

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