Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Memories of Lou.

I originally wrote this for the latest edition of Vive Le Rock and held off posting it until the latest edition was published.

“You gotta hear this”, said Mark pulling me into the listening booth. The booth was the size of a toilet cubicle with a glass fronted door and the two of us squeezed in. It was 1970, I was nearly sixteen.

The clear picked guitar line, the naked floor tom thump thump, then that voice. The snarl, sneer and so so cool delivery; “I don’t know just where I’m going”. Like a rush of drug, like the imaginations fireworks exploding, the world turned from muted suburban colours into vivid day-glo black and white with shades realisation that everything was now different.

We were too young to have been hippies, The Stones made more sense post-Altamont and a fire was sweeping but there was a distance, even in 1970. We had found the answer, Mark and I, and we devoured it like two starving dogs finding steak. We had no real idea who Warhol was, we were Camberley boys, out of place in our own time and place, but that sleeve mesmerised us. We bought the album, contemplated peeling the banana and decided to leave it pristine and untouched.

European Son, The Black Angel’s Death Song tore off the top of our heads. Throwing shapes and poses to I’m Waiting for the Man, imagining ourselves in a place we had no concept of but knowing where it was. And Nico. This beautiful, distant voice. Were these two an item?

Like the many thousands who claim to have been at the first, sparsely attended, Sex Pistols show there are as many who will claim to have bought the Velvet Underground & Nico album when it came out. I’m not one of them. But look at the list of albums released in 1967; it’s a mind-fuck. The Doors, Love, Sgt Peppers, Their Satanic Majesties, Cream; the list goes on and on. These were all gems but only one still sounds modern.

Then the journey of discovery, from White Light/White Heat, acid years, into Loaded, as we were, Sweet Jane and Train Comin’ Round The Bend. These were the years of experimentation, of everything. This was the soundtrack to the first pair of sunglasses. Then they were gone.

These were the Bowie years, when all the world was changing. Lou had made a solo album but nobody paid any mind until he returned and with Bowie’s help outshone Bowie. New York sleaze walked among us again and the boys all cabareted while the coloured girls went doo dah doo dah doo dah doo and my friends came out and the sun smiled.

By now I was living in Liverpool, and Lou came to town. We all rushed to the Empire to pay homage to the Emperor, and he wore new clothes. He wore a shit-coloured leather suit to be exact and he looked like he wanted to be back in the bosom of Manhattan. The audience hung on every note, the band looked weirdly glam, not black clothed junkie numbed horde-like figures. Be-platform shoed and strange hair but Lou had short hair and that stare. We went home and played Transformer over and over and pretended we’d loved the gig as much as we loved Lou.

Then we made punk, in his image. He hated us for it.

Many of us were too busy just being to notice Street Hassle. It was his number 8 as Lou. He’d nailed the 70s, lived them and threw them aside and then as punk melted into pop into mainstream his junkie opus made me lose my breath. His revisiting of riffs, his dragging the corpse to the dumper and his refusal to apologise for being a bastard demanded a standing ovation.

He was an artist. Like a good friend you don’t see very often, like every couple of years. Then you bump into each other, spend a while drinking, talking, laughing, and you walk away thinking “why the fuck don’t I see more of them?” His albums were like that. New York spoke to me, others didn’t. There was a reformation but I couldn’t bring myself to go; for what? Their power, his power, lay in the moment; forever in shades, forever awkward, always on my mind. Warhol left early and maybe a little of Lou went with him.

Now he’s dead and we all have our Lou Reed stories, our Velvet Underground memories and our own intimations of mortality. He moved through our landscape like a chronicler of our times, that first album continues to resonate, to influence; but when I look around at so much of the arid musical landscape that surrounds us I wonder whether those coming now really heard the songs. He wasn’t political but the world he painted was so much more real and interesting than the neutered pastel version today’s pop lovelies paint for us all.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Brand New Revolution

By now nearly everybody in the world has seen Russell Brand being interviewed by Jazza Paxman and, essentially, saying everything that many of us think and feel about the current state of politics and social organisation. We all applaud and, like a sugar rush or shot of strong spirits, the emotions rush to our heads and we punch the air while sat in front of our computer, smart phone or tablet; and there lies the rub. We remain seated.

Then, like the old stereotype about a Chinese meal (I have no idea how that started as everytime I’ve been to a Chinese restaurant I’m fine for at least 8 hours), you find yourself feeling empty again. Once you start examining the reasons for this you soon start to see the flaws in the Brand new way of doing things. Not that there is anything wrong about some good old ranting about the system, I made a career of it in The Members. My problem is with the “Don’t Vote” thing.

Have you noticed just how poisoned the national discourse has become, particularly about immigrants and benefits? You know why? Because UKIP turned up at the polls, that’s why. Simple. Every time you hear some person saying voting doesn’t change anything the response should be “NOT voting changes everything in a way you don’t want”. When all these myopic, two dimensional UKIP politicians turn up on our TV screens pointing the finger at some fictitious EU immigrant threat they are there because somebody else didn’t bother voting.

They represent a scare for a Conservative Party that is so regressive and cut off from its own heartland, and in response they feel obliged to co-opt the rhetoric, which they couch in mealy mouthed platitudes, in turn our media leaps upon the story feeding the immi-frenzy that passes for politics and in turn the apparently more liberal parties feel obliged to ape and mimic these positions because a dumbed down electorate will repeat and elaborate upon the anecdotal evidence put up by a party of bigots that is UKIP. And this happened because many on the left believe that voting doesn’t change anything and didn’t turn up. UKIP doesn’t believe that, and as a result they are the ones setting the parameters for what passes for political discourse.

There are plenty of people out there, the young, the poor, the dispossessed and the desperate, who don’t vote. They are not stopped from voting, there’s no voter ID type scam in place that would cause them problems like they have in the land of the free, they just don’t bother. There’s a mixture of politicians are all liars and cheats and “I’m not really into politics” and this allows the elites to ensure their continued existence, allows for the dismantling of the welfare state and the destruction of the NHS.

If you don’t vote then your opinion really doesn’t count at all. It doesn’t matter how many online petitions you sign or how many Facebook posts you like if your voice isn’t represented in voting numbers then no one is listening. I admire 38Degrees, Change and Occupy but they don’t have any political representation so their opinion meant sod all when parliament passed the recent lobbying bill. UKIP have no MPs but their voters have scared a major political party and skewed the national conversation.

Imagine if those voters had supported immigrants and the weak. We might have a far more reasonable discussion. Almost a revolution.

Now that’s a brand new way of thinking.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Fela Kuti, Revolutionary Dream.

In 1971 I was sixteen, turning seventeen in October. It was the age when music was becoming my life’s blood and starting to influence how I saw the world and related to it. My friend Mark and I would float around Camberley town centre, from coffee bar to record store talking about the value of this band and that band; we’d also crowd into the listening booths and beg the older bloke (at least twenty two) to let us hear whole sides of albums. It was Mark who dragged me into the booth and said “You gotta hear this!” and played me Heroin by the Velvet Underground; I dragged him in to hear Dirt by The Stooges. Record shop guy sort of tolerated us and then one day said “You two need to hear this”. It was Why Black Man Dey Suffer by Fela Kuti.

I never really listened to music the same again.

Over the years this early openness to what was out there musically has brought so much joy to my life. Disco, reggae, soul; the list is endless. For ages I felt like a lone voice in the wilderness, or at least a member of a small gang who used strange words like Fela, Franco, Sunny Ade or Joujouka. It didn’t make me a purist, it just made me open. Then it got called World Music and somehow in two simple words this magical music was put into a box marked “Liberal Middle Class Muesli Eaters”.

For me Fela is revolutionary music, by a man who walked the walk, talked the talk and took all the beatings handed out to him by an oppressive state. A man who articulated the problems that Africa faced from rapacious multi-nationals and corrupt governments many years before NGOs and pressure groups caught up with him was a giant. He was educated, sophisticated and informed; he chose to sing in pidgin English because it was a language that was pan-African, it enabled his message to travel beyond the borders of Nigeria and brought the issues he sang about, and highlighted, into the consciousness of the wider populations. He was a lot more scary than The Clash.

Now Knitting Factory Records are re-releasing several of Fela’s most important albums and they’ve led off with a pretty good compilation. Actually it’s a fucking great compilation but if you’re a Fela fan you’re always going to gripe that this song should be there, and that song, oh, yeah, and that one. I guess one of the problems is that so many of his songs clock in a big time so in an effort to introduce as many songs as possible you either edit or find the shorter ones.

That said this compilation has such towering greats as Everything Scatter and Expensive Shit, the breathtaking Sorrow Tears and Blood and the angry, and politically exact, Colonial Mentality.

For a true illustration of the power of music you cannot do better than anything by Fela. Right now we are living in difficult times, we have a government pressing down on the poorest in society, we have a middle class with a shrinking share of the national wealth and we have the youth of our country being priced out of education and work. Now, more than any other time, we need artists to step up to the plate and make common cause. I appreciate that pop music never changes much, but it changes the general environment, the water we swim in. When we are fed a diet of One Direction and Emelie Sande, when even the “challenging” bands are wary of speaking out about politics then we must delve into Fela Kuti. We must throw ourselves into his music like fishes desperate to breathe.

Everything Scatter

Many foreign companies dey Africa carry all our money go
Many foreign companies dey Africa carry all our money go
Them go write big English for newspaper, dabaru we Africans
Them go write big English for newspaper, dabaru we Africans (I.T.T.)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Malian magic, Ben Zabo and absent friends.

First off I want to assert that this is a great album; play it in the car, play it in the kitchen, play it loud, late on a Friday night after too much beer and rum or just collapse into a comfortable chair and listen to it as it washes over you like the soft waters of the Niger river. Mali exerts a level of influence over Western music that is too often ignored. People remain ignorant of the fact that, like humanity, rock n' roll came out of Africa as well, from it's origins with the griots playing the kora to the transported slaves voicing their despair and subjugation using the same chording and structures to compose the Blues and from there to young white boys playing electric guitars and wanting to emulate the big boss men like John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton.

Today Mali still delivers and this album is another in a long line of artists that illustrate how this riven country still punches above its weight artistically. Ben Zabo, whose band is named after him, started his career as an engineer at Studio Bogolan in Bamako working on albums by the likes of Tamikrest and the legendary Lobi Traoré. Like any young studio engineer he had his own music inside him and now it's out there.

Channelling Afro-beat through the prism of contemporary Malian music, insistent rhythms, clattering percussion and rivulets of icy, bright guitar laid over with the smooth harmonies of Western Africa Zabo delivers a cascade of sensation. Ironically his guitar work conjures up images of Amadou Bagayoko, from Amadou and Mariam, but the sleevenotes for this album studiously avoids any mention of the biggest selling African act of all time. On Sènsènbo the guitar, marimba and bassline sinuously intertwine in a way that brings to mind some of the work on Welcome To Mali; that's not to say that there's any plagiarism going on here, merely that acknowledgement of the road that has been opened up by the likes of Amadou and Mariam and Tinariwen is absent.

That small niggle aside Ben Zabo is carving his own path. Working with Chris Eckman (The Walkabouts, Dirtmusic) Zabo has crafted a polished début that has all the quality and skill required from a master musician, one that in a world unafraid of language and subtitles would propel this majestically to the upper reaches of the charts. Personally I would rather hear this on repeat than listen to Jessie J, Ed Sheeran or anything on The Voice. We live in a globalised economy; it would be wonderful if music could be a part of that too.

That's what I think.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Part of Re:Members

I stopped at the bottom of the stairs and it was as if time itself had balled into a fist and screamed down the staircase and punched me. I have no idea what triggered it but suddenly time was laid out in front of me like an ugly carpet and I saw all the stains, the beautiful blemishes, and the realisation that I have nothing to be embarrassed of and nothing to regret. The bad I have done has been done back to me and in the context of Germany and Russia or in the context of some tabloid scoop my life has been mine.

I should never have gone on that last Members tour. I was not in any fit state emotionally, the whole world was collapsing in slow motion around me and I had no other outlet. No one person was to blame, no I correct that I was to blame. So I set forth and fell in love: constantly. I had those groupie moments but what has stayed with me these thirty years since that time is the pain. The pain of cheating and the pain of falling in love constantly over and over again, like some repetitive Groundhog Day scenario. I remember them all even after nearly 25 years of marriage to an amazing woman and a nagging sense of betrayal to another amazing woman. These women in the USA, in New York, in LA, in San Francisco, in Toronto and in Fort Lauderdale. And one in Corpus Christi. No shame, nothing approximating anything like it. More a sense of what was it all about what was it I was doing and how come my emotions were carved up and spread around? What the fuck was I doing?

I stand now in the place where I am, happy, with kids and a family, without parents nearly sixty; Christ how did I get so old?  Some, maybe many, could say it I just some vague longing for the time that was most exciting in my life, like those old guys you used to meet in the Seventies who would talk endlessly about the war because it was the only exciting thing that had happened, or even worse those people who would drone on and on about University  because that was the only time they had had fun as soon after they had got fucked up with me they met their future wife and they never knew the drunken stupidity of casual sex after nightclubbing in Berlin in 1976.

Chi-Chi, Paulette, Theresa and Dory. More than names, still faces, not notches on walls. Parts of my life. Erin in the Gulf. Moments that stayed with me, nothing left a mark quite the same way they did. In Fort Lauderdale I fell in love with someone who wept when I left. I cried in the van, quietly at the very back, hidden behind my shades. I felt like those early tribes people on first discovering the perfidious white man who stole parts of their soul with the camera. Every time I left a part of me remained, forever in aspic. Stuck in time like some frozen river or posed photograph.

This beautiful sadness doesn’t brush aside the reality I live in, it never did. Where I am now is where I have always wanted to be, but now, right now, in the Bourbon hours of the night their faces come back to me. They were funny, they were fabulous and they loved me for a moment and if I had lived in that moment I would still be there. These parallel universes that we all inhabit stay with us and make us human but they also give us super-powers. They make us immortal because some place else we will always be in that moment.

I miss Fort Lauderdale and I miss LA. But I love London.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Incisive interviewing?

Being somewhat Radio 4 available these days I tend to have it on all the time in the background, absorbing the bon mots and nuggets of information as they drop like sparkly raindrops from the jewelled lips of the erudite presenters. I’ve even become an aficionado of Woman’s Hour.

You may snigger and ridicule but there has been many a time that I have learnt a lot from this programme but I do prefer Libby Purves to Jane Garvey. I think it must be down to their interview style. Ms Purves tends to be conspiratorial and inclusive in her tone whereas Ms Garvey tends to the confrontational and hectoring, though I’m sure she’s lovely really; she wasn’t this morning though.

Katherine Jenkins was on, she of the fabulous lungs and shitty repertoire. Now as far as I’m concerned everyone is allowed to make a living singing whatever they want. My old man used to be a big fan of Ms Jenkins and the like, though in her case it might have been the figure hugging couture that swung it. The lovely Welsh songstress was on to publicise her latest album of anodyne quasi operatic silliness, which was fine. She has a wonderfully busy life, being all lovely and that, running around all over the place and being Welsh.

Unfortunately three years ago she gave an interview to Piers Morgan where she, with great honesty, admitted to having experimented with drugs. As always celebrities have to garner this honesty with “my drug shame” or “I’m warning other young people” or “this is my biggest regret” rather than accept that a huge percentage of us experiment with drugs at various times of our lives. In 2011 this really shouldn’t be the subject of ridiculous over-reaction it so often is, and it certainly shouldn’t be a fucking topic dredged up by some lame arsed BBC researcher or presenter to hit someone over the head with.

Until we start to address drugs in a far more adult way and stand up to the hysteria generated by the filth that passes for media in our country (Britain) we are never going to achieve anything. As so many have said the war on drugs has been won; by drugs. That said we are seeing a drop in the number of people addicted to heroin and crack™. You know why? Because it has taken this long for people to wake up to the fact that junkies are tedious boring whiners who don’t wash enough, steal your shit and can always be relied upon to let you down.

Junkies are also waking up to the fact that it’s a full time job for Christsakes and being as most of them are lazy arsed wasters they really don’t want to be dealing with full time jobs! Ergo the drop in their numbers.

But come on people. Most of us have smoked a spliff or dropped a pill or snorted lines off the top of a toilet in our local pub, or off the pinball table in my case. It really isn’t cause for tabloid horror. Katherine Jenkins was honest about her youthful indiscretions, it hasn’t done her any harm and she’s made a shed load of money and is extremely hot. We must move the discussion because, on the whole, drugs can be a lot of fun.

The youth know this and older people do as well. The ridiculous demands of a media whose practitioners have, in the main, indulged themselves, and still do, do us no favours at all; all it does in reinforce the prejudices of the ignorant, maintains the pointless status quo, with the levels of slaughter in Mexico one of the by-products, and helps enhance the image that the media is full of shit and has no idea what it is talking about.

And as for you Jane Garvey you should be ashamed of yourself.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Manu - Global Citizen.

Today the legendary Manu Chao will be playing a free concert in Phoenix, Arizona to publicise the state's anti-immigrant policies; policies that have given Phoenix the soubriquet "Capital of Prejudice". As the citizens of the USA merrily make a bonfire of their hard won rights and liberties, in much the same way as we have been doing in the UK, it behoves us all to pause for a moment and think about it. Currently a Federal judge is the only person preventing the implementation of Arizona Senate Bill 1070 and the imposition of police powers more akin to Syria or East Germany (when it existed).

The Western capitalist system is crashing, the exploitation of the developing world is coming home to roost and the extreme right is on the rise, particularly in the southern states of the USA. Good people need to speak out.

If I was anywhere close I'd be there, eating great food, dancing to brilliant music and partying hard for the good cause this represents.