Saturday, June 27, 2015

Wyndham Wallace — ‘Lee, Myself and I: Inside the Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood’

The strings are like veins swelling with blood — slowly at first, then increasingly uninhibited. A hint of horn and a tease of oboe offer brief flashes of bare skin, the melody floating over its surface. The song suddenly shifts up a key, and I gasp: it’s like we’ve reached the peak of a treacherous mountain, and now, below us, as clouds part, we’ve discovered at last hidden hillsides and dark, unknown forests. I’m entering Freudian territory. Man, I really am stoned. (p. 31)

This is a description of ‘Leather and Lace’ from Cowboy in Sweden — of Wyndham Wallace hearing it for the first time, and getting it right between the thighs. It’s the early ’90s. He’s been out to a Mark Eitzel show which finished abruptly when a heckler went too far causing Eitzel to storm off, and ended up, via a few games of pool, in a Camden flat inhabited by The Rockingbirds, hogging a joint and falling hard for Lee’s music. It’s some introduction, some description. Scenes of Wallace taking his first tentative steps in the music business from a privileged starting point which he sees as a disadvantage (how times change!) are woven in with his first meeting with Lee, five or six years later, in a hotel bar in New York. It doesn’t start well:
‘How the fuck old are you? Thirteen?’
I’m not even shit on his shoes. (p. 18)
Wallace is actually 27 by this point, and runs the UK arm of City Slang (or possibly is the UK arm of City Slang). Steve Shelley is in the process of re-releasing some of Lee’s records and has involved Wallace for UK promotion. Faxes have bleeped back and forth, and now the launch party has occasioned this meeting with his hero. It’s a bit tense, but he gets through it without alienating Lee too much.

The book is the story of how these unpromising beginnings lead to a real friendship. Lee is difficult, Wyndham indulgent; gradually trust starts to build. It’s also the story of a comeback: the discography at the back shows a prolific career losing momentum in the mid ’70s, skipping the ’80s entirely and never really getting its mojo back right until the end, with 2006’s Cake or Death. Though there are reminiscences of the glory days, the focus is necessarily on the nineties and noughties, some comeback concerts (particularly at Nick Cave’s Meltdown in 1999 — though Cave’s one appearance in the book is stand-off-ish in the extreme), and Lee’s cancer, of which he died in 2007. It’s a fine memoir, but it makes you thirst for a similarly meticulous account of the sixties and seventies. A project to get down some of Lee’s anecdotes while he can still tell them is mooted late on, but there’s a problem with that idea: ‘Lee rarely speaks about the music on his old records. He’ll talk until your smile muscles ache about all sorts of things, but not the contents of the albums he made.’ (p. 195). There are a few indications in the book that there was a depressive side to Lee – at least, that he was a man who needed his own space. That made me think of ‘Friendship Train’, and the line ‘when you’re blue I’ll lie and say you’re not feeling like yourself today’. When you’ve sung that, really, why elaborate?

Except that one of the chief pleasures of this book is hearing Lee speak. It doesn’t much matter what about, and in fact, it’s hard to find anything very concise or even to the point. It’s just nice to do. Here he is reminiscing about making someone else’s records (‘Bubba’ is his nick-name for Wyndham):
        ‘You know, we started making Duane Eddy records in 1957, in Phoenix, Arizona. That’s over forty years ago. Corky Casey’ – he relishes the sound of her name as it rolls off his tongue – ‘played rhythm on a lot of them. She didn’t play in the band in person, but Corky was always on the records. You know, what Corky Casey may have been is the first American rock lady guitarist in America. I haven’t found anybody who can say otherwise, and I’ve talked to several people about it. They say, “1957? That’s waaaay back there, isn’t it?” So if you know of anyone, Bubba – and I don’t mean your grandmother who played in a band – then I think you ought to tell me.’
        ‘I don’t think my grandmother ever played in a band,’ I laugh, surprised by the notion, since I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned her before. ‘She was more of a wannabe poet.’
        ‘Aha! I like the sound of her.’ (p. 96)
Miss you, Lee.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

P. G. Wodehouse — ‘Something Fresh’

        ‘What cheese would you recommend?’
        ‘The gentlemen are speaking well of the gorgonzola.’
        ‘All right, bring me some. You know, Adams, what I admire about Americans is their resource. Mr Peters tells me that, as a boy of eleven, he earned twenty dollars a week selling mint to saloon-keepers, as they call publicans over there. Why they wanted mint I cannot recollect. Mr Peters explained the reason to me, and it seemed highly plausible at the time, but I have forgotten it. Possibly for mint-sauce. It impressed me, Adams. Twenty dollars is four pounds. I never earned four pounds a week when I was a boy of eleven. In fact, I don’t think I ever earned four pounds a week. His story impressed me, Adams. Every man ought to have an earning capacity…. Tell me, Adams, have I eaten my cheese?’
        ‘Not yet, your lordship, I was about to send the waiter for it.’
        ‘Never mind. Tell him to bring the bill instead. I remember that I have an appointment. I must not be late.’
        ‘Shall I take the fork, your lordship?’
        ‘The fork?’
        ‘Your lordship has inadvertently put a fork in your coat-pocket.’
        Lord Emsworth felt in the pocket indicated, and, with the air of an inexpert conjuror whose trick has succeeded contrary to his expectations, produced a silver-plated fork. He regarded it with surprise, then he looked wonderingly at Adams.
        ‘Adams, I’m getting absent-minded. Have you ever noticed any traces of absent-mindedness in me before?’
        ‘Oh, no, your lordship.’ (pp. 43–4)
Once upon a time, I doted on Wodehouse, and particularly the Blandings stories. Their appeal is simple: it’s an idyll, a place it’s charming and relaxing to visit (Trollope’s Barsetshire has a similar attraction at times, though it’s obviously more extensive and less comic. But there are real points of crossover: both The Small House at Allington and Something Fresh feature breach of promise to marry as a theme). They turn on the character of the Clarence, Ninth Earl of Emsworth, who wants to be left alone by the world to potter around Blandings, enjoying the gardens, and looking in on the Empress, his prize pig, around whose condition (i.e. fatness) various labyrinthine plots are constructed. The recent BBC TV series got it all wrong by being madcap: Blandings is about calm. Of course things happen to intrude on that calm, generally to imperil the Empress’ girth when she’s about to be entered into a show, and then the Earl will be troubled, within his exceedingly narrow focus. But it’s a joy to observe that narrow focus, and a comfort to watch his ruffled feathers settle as the status quo is restored. Something Fresh is the first Blandings novel, from 1915, and the pieces aren’t all in place yet (there’s no pig, and no Lady Constance to keep Clarence on his toes), but on the other hand it has characters who feel things for each other, and a plot stacked high with farcical potential.

The plot turns on a scarab that the Earl unconsciously pockets: the pride of the collection of American millionaire Mr Peters, whose daughter Aline has unaccountably become engaged to Freddie, the Earl’s vacant youngest son. Mr Peters is furious when he discovers the loss, but can’t accuse Emsworth of the theft for fear of jeopardising his daughter’s marriage. Emsworth becomes convinced that the scarab was intended as a present, and gives it a prominent place in the museum at Blandings castle. Mr Peters lets it be known he’d give $5000 to get the scarab back, which causes a rush of people (well, three) to the castle to retrieve it. Two of them pretend to be domestic servants: Joan Valentine, an old school friend of Aline Peters, who once was the target of a stream of love letters and poems from Freddie, whom she impressed as a chorus girl; and Ashe Marson, a fitness fanatic and reluctant writer of the Gridley Quayle detective stories which Freddie, cooped up at the castle with no allowance, adores. Joan pretends to be Aline’s maid, and Ashe the valet of Mr Peters — who, I forgot to mention, is dyspeptic and on a diet he can’t stand, of nuts and greens. Then there is R. Jones, whom Freddie has paid £500 to get back the letters he wrote to Joan, lest she raise a breach of promise case and endanger his marriage to Aline. Joan didn’t keep the letters, and tells R. Jones so. He leaves, and is just in time to listen at the door when Aline arrives, and tells Joan about the reward for the scarab. This gives him an idea for squeezing more money out of Freddie.

There’s more, but that’s the gist. Most characters have two functions which dovetail nicely into a wall of confusion. Now you mention it, it doesn’t actually sound all that calm; but don’t forget that the Earl is 99% oblivious. Without the pig to focus his attention, his only real concern is being at Blandings:
The Earl of Emsworth was one of the world’s leading potterers, and Sunday morning was his favourite time for pottering. Since breakfast he had pottered about the garden, pottered round the stables, and pottered about the library. He now pottered into the museum. (p. 213)
Doesn’t that sound delightful?

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Anthony Trollope – ‘The Small House at Allington’

Who does not know how terrible are those preparations for house-moving – how infinite in number are the articles which must be packed, how inexpressibly uncomfortable is the period of packing, and how poor and tawdry is the aspect of one’s belongings while they are thus in a state of dislocation? (p. 538)
Well, quite. S. and I moved earlier this year, to a house of our own, with an art room for her and a music room / library for me (hedging my bets), and while much of the house is tidy and functional, these two rooms are still Xanadus of boxes: all the things we couldn’t bear to part with, but aren’t strictly necessary. It’s ever so slightly tempting to lock them up and go digital. Mrs Dale and her two daughters, with whom Trollope sympathises above, don’t have that option, of course: it’s the 1860s, and they feel that their position as occupiers of the Small House at Allington is no longer tenable. They have lived there for many years, under the aegis of the squire, who lives next door at the Great House. His brother was Mrs Dale’s husband, and has left her a widow with a very small income. The squire, taking them under his wing in a practical sense, finds it impossible to show fondness (though it is not lacking) through his manner, so they always feel a little distant from him. When he tries to consolidate the family fortune, by marrying off the elder sister, Bell, to his nephew Bernard, they see it as a step outside his authority, and plan to leave the Small House for much plainer lodgings at nearby Guestwick. Whether they will go through with this or not gives some tension to the closing chapters of the book, alongside the greater question of whether Lily Dale will marry Johnny Eames. Certainly the book ends well, with these two gentle crescendos, and sets the reader up for more Barsetshire in the sixth and final book of the series.

While I did enjoy this book, and generally become more enamoured of Trollope the more I read, it didn’t quite live up to Framley Parsonage, which wove such a rich tapestry of old and new characters. The Small House feels more limited, though it’s unclear why this should be so: it takes in country, town, rich and… less rich. It contains a vicious and thoroughly enjoyable demolition job on the de Courcys, who move from respectable titled folk to in-fighting money-grubbing horror show without changing at all. There are scenes of clerk-dom at the Income Tax Office, which (say the notes) may draw on Trollope’s own time at the Post Office. There are comic scenes in a low rent guest house, and there is passionate, doomed love at Allington in two directions. There is a terrific scene showing how bored men get when women choose carpets. Money is everywhere, of course, but it’s not quite the actuating force it was in Framley Parsonage. Greed is more generalised; want, too. The lessons to be drawn are perhaps a little obvious: don’t run from the arms of the one you love into those of the daughter of an earl for whom you don’t care a jot. And – on the other side – don’t fall in love with a swell; don’t be a Cathy for the first dashing man who comes along, because he probably isn’t a Heathcliff.

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