Extra: Girl from the North Country

NOT FARGO, FARRAGO
I decided to spend an afternoon traveling in the North Country fair but sadly wished that I’d never taken leave of London Town. (To see what prompted my going, see Five Things Extra: That Dylan Play, where two friends with opposing views write about it).

Honestly, upfront I have to say that there’s more nuance and depth of character in a silent movie than there is in Girl from the North Country. Yes, I speak as a slightly reluctant attendee, but not because I was proprietorially feeling How dare they… or snottily assuming critical feelings about a work in another medium purloining Bob’s songs to its own ends. I’m not even sure that I would have been offended by Ben Elton scripting a play based around these songs, as he had done for Queen. And – also honestly – the music, arranged by Simon Hale, is delivered beautifully, with sensitive guitar, piano, bass, and fiddle accompaniment that manages to mostly stay away from a Mumford hoedown, and deliver true heft behind some good singing.

But, dramatically speaking, well… Nothing here made me feel that the writer, Conor McPherson, had any understanding of these people and their problems in this small midwestern town. The plot seemed laughably dated, cobbled together from offcuts of Steinbeck, O’Connor, and O’Neill. Slow-witted lunk? Check. Old rich man who thinks money can buy him the love of a poor but pretty girl? Check. Con man masquerading as a bible salesman? Check. Boarding-House owner with debts and a mistress? Check. Black convict trying to escape… I could work my way through the cast, but you get the drift.

There’s an almost offensive use of dementia as a dramatic device, with Shirley Henderson having to play the afflicted wife of Nick, the Boarding House owner. From the back of the stalls she looks too young (even if she isn’t in life) and plays her as a sexually incontinent, gratuitously swearing Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Really. Bits of business at the boarding house ( in a variety of clunky American accents) get interspersed with musical moments that are meant to round out character and story, but for every line that fits, there are two that seem tangential or just plain weird. “Sign on the Window” and “Went to See the Gypsy” (with its mention of “that little Minnesota town”) work at the start, but “Señor” (“Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’? Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?”) seems to carry a heavier apocalyptic load than these flimsy characters can bear.

And while it was great to hear songs from, say, the Empire Burlesque period, where Dylan’s own versions have weak or unlistenable production, some decisions didn’t come off. Especially in the case of “I Want You”, sung in counterpoint to a reprise of “Like a Rolling Stone”. Slowing the song’s essential skipping beat to a funereal pace and disastrously over-enunciating the lyrics (Musical Theatre Alert!) rendered those beautiful rolling and tumbling lines (“The guilty undertaker sighs/The lonesome organ grinder cries/The silver saxophones say I should refuse you”) dead on arrival. It also contained the unfortunate call and response of…
“How does it feel…” (LaRS)
“So bad…” (IWY)

I thought Bronagh Gallagher the most impressive singer (she also played very tidy drums on a few songs) especially on “Sweetheart Like You”/True Love Tends to Forget”, but I found myself more than once involuntarily leaning forward and putting my head in my hands. I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the performance so I had to stop myself emitting weary sighs, but by halfway through the second half, I felt my patience being stretched thin, as thin as the dramatic arc of the story.

Thinking about the success of the play (it’s transferring to the West End soon), and the standing ovations at the finale, I wondered if there are people who go to see every musical in the West End, regardless of type. I heard the people behind me say that they must go home and listen to this Dylan guy, and I don’t mention that as a criticism. What I do think is that the bar is set too low if this farrago gets five stars from Michael Billington in The Guardian.

As I walked back to my car, I scanned through my iPhone for some music to clear my head. Brian Ferry irreverently blasting out “Hard Rain” fitted the bill as I pulled out from the Cut and onto Waterloo Bridge. When, a few songs later, Lou Reed’s “Dirty Blvd.” burst out of the speakers, I pulled over and listened, powerfully struck by the fact that he paints – with shocking detail – a fully rounded and realised story in the three and a half minutes it takes to play out. Dreams, inequality, racism, celebrity, poverty, politics, and violence. All vividly brought to life. Three and a half minutes. The last two and a half hours is just wasted time.

Extra: That Dylan Play…

hibbing

IT SEEMS THAT I HAVE TO GO TO THE THEATRE…
…which is not my favourite thing to do. But as two friends have opposite opinions on the play that uses Dylan songs throughout, it’s going to be necessary. [Image above shows Hibbing’s High School, Dylan’s Yearbook picture, Dylan onstage with his first band, The Golden Chords, and North Country Girl Echo Star Helstrom].

So here’s Bruce Millar on Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country:

“The first inkling that something was not quite right came early on, as it became clear that the young female actor (20s, early 30s at a pinch) in the lead role was actually playing an aging woman with dementia – well, at least 60, and we are talking about the 1930s, when that age did make you old. Her husband was, appropriately, my age and similarly gone to seed. I know, this is acting, you suspend your disbelief – but as Tom said, is it really not possible to find a female actor of 60-odd who can sing a bit? They’re always complaining of a lack of roles, but here one comes along on the West End stage and it’s snaffled by a youngster. Anyway, for me the production immediately smacked of the school play, with a teenage Lady Macbeth…

The play itself, set in Duluth (the possibly spurious BD connection – I couldn’t make out any dramatic justification for it), seemed to throw in every cliche of American southern gothic literature – the nutter in every family, the sinister and manipulative Bible salesman, the subterranean sexual passions, the wastrel would-be writer son, the washed-up pro boxer – in a not very stylish or original manner, and a couple of thousand miles north of its proper territory.

And then, in a manner rather too reminiscent of Abba – The Musical, the cast burst into song every now and then. Some of the singing was good, and there was nothing particularly wrong with the interpretations, but it slowly dawned on me that this was a Crime against Art. Recorded or live, these songs, mostly from the 60s and 70s, are all very precise, but at the same time extraordinarily open-ended; they play on the imagination, suggesting multiple meanings, feelings and depths, in a way that few songwriters have ever achieved so consistently (which is probably why the Nobel committee gave Dylan the literature prize).

Shoe-horned into this derivative drama, each song seemed to have been limited, confined, diminished, flattened and emptied-out; there was no charge, none of the reverberation that I value in the originals. It was strange to hear these great songs transformed into something so small.

Over an interval drink, Tom and I decided to cut our losses and head for Dunkirk instead. I’ve got pretty catholic tastes and am both patient and mean enough to want to get my money’s worth – the last time I walked out of a film or play was 40 years ago (strange how some things stick in the mind). I haven’t seen what the professional reviewers make of Girl from the North Country – I’ll be particularly interested in Ann Treneman’s review in the Times (if she reviews it), given that she is an admirer of Dylan. My prediction is that lazy subs will probably run headlines saying For fans of Dylan only; I would reverse that, but even then advise against going.”

And here’s Mick Gold:

“It’s a funny beast but I recommend it. Twenty songs in search of a play? Stuck in 1934 Duluth with the Eugene O’Neill Blues again? Set in a Depression era rooming house in the city where Bob will be born in seven years time, McPherson’s play floats in a fragmented way on a sea of songs. The good news is the cast and the music are wonderful. Worth the price of a ticket just to see Bronagh Gallagher (of Pulp Fiction fame) play the drums.

When a falsely accused black pugilist enters stage left, you can guess what is coming, but when the inevitable “Hurricane” blows the audience away, it’s done with massive energy. To my ears some outstanding young singers in the cast (Sheila Atim, Arinze Kene). Jim Norton, who did a brilliant job of reading the whole of Ulysses for Naxos discs, plays a seedy old man.

“Jokerman”, “Slow Train”, “Duquesne Whistle”, “Like a Rolling Stone” and many more are all done with great artistry and emotional impact. There was the occasional tear in my eye. If this were a boxing match I’d score it Play 3, Bob 5. But the reason the music is so good is McPherson does have some strange and poignant ideas about not making the songs too obvious. And the rhyming of 1934 Depression-era Main Street USA and 2017 zero-hours UK is convincing.”

Thursday, May 25th

ONE LIL BUCK
Dance is my Cultural Achilles Heel™ but I overcome it to marvel at this, filmed while the Shchukin collection was at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. “I was born in Chicago,” Lil Buck says, “Raised in Memphis, Tennessee…” Well, that’s a blues lyric right there.

5-Lil

“It’s a dance style that started with Memphis underground rap music, and that music, the way it was produced, gave us a certain bounce. When I was around 16 years old I got into ballet. We made a deal with this artistic director that we would teach hip-hop, and they would teach us ballet…” There’s a moment at 2:45 in front of Picasso’s Three Women that is just astounding, but it’s not the locale, or the music, or the amazing art – this would be as strange and beguiling wherever it was performed.

TWO “I WAS HIS PERPETUAL +1”
In the 80s Mark and I went to see, more than once, Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, a band that consisted of eight brass players and one drummer. The man on the non-brass instrument was Phillip Wilson. A great drummer, he was equally adept at keeping the band ticking and purring through the buildup of “Saving All My Love for You” as slashing and slapping back at the horns as they riffed violently to the song’s climax. It was a holy noise, great on record but best experienced live. The only other things I knew about Phillip Wilson were that he was involved in the Art Ensemble of Chicago and that he had drummed with the Paul Butterfield Band around the end of the Sixties. This fascinating interview by Ethan Iverson with David Sanborn, the sax player, is about how important Wilson was to Sanborn.

“Through Phillip, I met Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, and Hamiet Bluiett. Lester was the comedian king: like the wise philosopher of St. Louis but funny and fearless. Phillip and Lester did not discriminate about styles of music. Lester played in a circus band, society gigs, straight-ahead gigs. He played with Jimmy Forrest. He met his wife Fontella “Rescue Me” Bass on a gig with the Clara Ward Gospel Singers. Everyone had a day job except for Lester. Julius Hemphill sold furniture, Oliver Lake worked in the post office, Phillip worked as an arc welder at McDonnell Aircraft. Phillip worked at McDonnell all day, like from six in the morning to three or four in the afternoon, and he might have gone home and slept a bit before playing and hanging all night. Sometimes we would be hanging at like four in the morning and he’d say, ‘I’ve got to go home, change my clothes, and go to work.’”

THREE WHEN I PAINT MY MASTERPIECE
I loved this pastel drawing, a forgery passed off as Bob Dylan’s work a week or so ago, but actually a rather great picture of The Band. As Richard Manuel sang “The hoot owl and his song, will bring you along / Where else on earth would you wanna go?”

5-band

FOUR “MY HEAD SAYS NO! BUT MY HEART SAYS GO!”
This NY Times video, by Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson, is simply people climbing up a Ten Meter Diving Platform and jumping off. The twist is that none of them has ever done it before, and it takes some negotiating, either with friends or themselves, as they build up the courage to do it. And the reason that I’m writing about it is that the editing of the film is so brilliant, and the sounds are as important as the visuals. Tension and release personified – finger clicking, nervous scratching and deep breaths before the screams and the splash.

FIVE SPIRITLAND
Tim and I meet at Spiritland, somewhere that I’ve been meaning to go to since it opened. Then a couple of days later, Oobah Butler on Mr. Hyde wrote a piece on it that perfectly summed up my mixed feelings about it.

“Novelty has become the lifeblood of London. Most new spots open with a sideways glance, crazed gurn and elbow nudge, rather than straight-faced sincerity. But a new hero is bucking the trend: Spiritland, the “listening bar” in Kings Cross that’s “a paradise for anyone from the aficionado to the curious”. It definitely takes itself seriously, from its one-of-a-kind speaker system to DJ sets from big names like Hot Chip and Jarvis Cocker. And that’s great! But one issue: what the hot hell is a listening bar? Dudes in At The Drive-In T-shirts who occasionally look up from their William Burroughs novel to give an appreciative nod? An immersive experience that leaves no room for anything but absorbing tunes? One so intoxicating that it can get you drunk on music? I tried to stay sober on a Thursday night to find out.

Spiritland is tucked away in a ghost town of half-finished apartment buildings, mournful Bella Italias and broad, empty streets. It’s a diverse crowd, but everyone has one thing in common: we’re sat in a spartan room with dinner and drinks, facing The Bloody Big Music Blaster. Neither imbalanced nor throttling, the setup sounds wonderful. It’s official: I am woozy; totally drunk on music. But getting there requires an indulgent, eyes-closed isolationism that goes against its appeal to groups going out. You can have a table-banging debate about zero-hours contracts with the squad, or you can surrender to sound and fully appreciate the tech. Doing both is harder.

There’s also the Dad’s-cologne whiff of pragmatism over the layout. If you were to place all your focus on the listening experience, you wouldn’t have so many tables right at the front. The speakers would creep away from the wall. You wouldn’t serve food. So Spiritland finds itself in a no man’s land, ostensibly appealing to both the casuals and the committed, but not being quite right for either. But this is probably as music-obsessed as we can get in London 2017 – it could have been more dedicated elsewhere in Europe, but the closure of clubs and gig venues shows we turned our backs on music. So I order a beer, relax and enjoy Spiritland for what it is: an imperfect yet inventive space for a bit of small-group musical nerding.”

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Monday, March 27th

Have you noticed how nearly everyone interviewed on either TV or Radio nowadays prefaces the start of their answer with “So” followed by a brief but weighty pause, as if they are lecturing a slightly witless teenager? I’ve decided to get in on the act this week.

So. Here goes…

ONE OF THE BEST PIECES OF WRITING I’VE READ RECENTLY
So, Liam Noble is a jazz [I’m not even sure that kind of nomenclature is serviceable anymore] pianist who writes like a dream. Everything on his blog, Brother Face, repays reading – this is his latest, which tells of his job transcribing thirty of the Bill Evans Trio’s performances for a publisher – “Anyway, back to Bill Evans. After four months the job was done. I walked away a new man. I walked away a hollow corpse, eaten away by the parasite Bill Evans. I couldn’t play a note, because every note that came out was his, and so I tried to blank him out, and to override this I had to think of “someone else” and how they would play the same thing. So now there were three of us…” Brilliant.

SO, TWO THE MINIMALIST TURNTABLE

wheel

From What Hi-Fi: “For the space-conscious, here’s your turntable. New Kickstarter project Wheel by Miniot is a wheel that plays records. There’s no visible tonearm, no cartridge and nothing but a platter. Everything is built into the platter, including the belt drive, linear tonearm and amplifiers. It’s controlled by the stick in the middle. Turn it to start the record playing, then turn it again to adjust the volume. Tap the top to pause it, or prod the side to skip a track or go back one. It works either horizontally or vertically, so can be wall-mounted. What could be simpler?”

TRIPLE SO, THERE’S ALWAYS ROOM FOR BOB…
There’s a fascinating interview with Bob by Bill Flanagan (whose Written in My Soul is still one of the best books on the stuff and nonsense of songwriting) on bobdylan.com, for the release of Triplicate.

Up to the sixties, these songs were everywhere – now they have almost faded away. Do they mean more to you when you hear them now? “They do mean a lot more. These songs are some of the most heart-breaking stuff ever put on record and I wanted to do them justice. Now that I have lived them, and lived through them, I understand them better. They take you out of that mainstream grind where you’re trapped between differences which might seem different but are essentially the same. Modern music and songs are so institutionalized that you don’t realize it. These songs are cold and clear-sighted, there is a direct realism in them, faith in ordinary life just like in early rock and roll.”

When you see footage of yourself performing 40 or 50 years ago, does it seem like a different person? What do you see? “I see Nat King Cole, “Nature Boy” – a very strange enchanted boy, a terribly sophisticated performer, got a cross section of music in him, already postmodern. That’s a different person than who I am now.”

FOUR OVER ON TIMELINE
So, Jim Marshall is the great photographer of Rock Music, 1964 to 1970, and this is about his posthumous show, Jim Marshall, 1967, running in San Francisco at the moment. Here’s a favourite shot from Proof, a great book of his photos, of Elizabeth Cotton and Mississippi John Hurt at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 (did I say that he was a great Folk and Jazz photographer also?)

marshall

FIVE PLAYLIST FROM LUNCH WITH GEORGE FOSTER
As we talked of Spiritland and Gearbox Records and Brilliant Corners (mostly new to me, of course) we listened on George’s extraordinarily hi-fi system. Here’s a partial playlist:
“Trouble Man”/Rickie Lee Jones (the string bass sounded huge – it could be Richard Davis (of Astral Weeks fame, for non-jazz fans), or Mike Elizondo (of Eminem fame) or Paul Nowinski, but, whoever it is, they pin you to your seat.
“Blues in the Night”/Julie London (Big, brassy and sassy, with an amazing vocal sound and a gorgeous ending).
“Deep River”/Horace Parlan and Archie Shepp (in honour of Mr. Parlan, RIP).
“Speak Low”/Karin Krog, Warne Marsh & Red Mitchell (I had no knowledge of the extraordinary Ms Krog, but the interplay of her voice, the sax and the bass is something else – as is the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash song – written for the musical, One Touch of Venus, a collaboration with librettist S. J. Perelman. Now that’s a rehearsal room you’da wanted to be in, in 1943, no?. As Nash wrote: “Time is so old and love so brief/Love is pure gold and time a thief…”
“Poinciana”/Keith Jarrett Trio. We ended up by watching Keith Jarrett in Japan, playing “Old Man River” solo, which goes from contemplative to gospel to baroque through Billy Taylor, Broadway and Carole King (I swear!) in exquisite fashion.

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Monday, March 6th

ONE MOST EXCELLENT SHOP OF THE WEEK
In Paris (feeling unfettered and alive, natch) I search for La Galcante, the shop from a magazine junkie’s dreams. It’s off a small Rue in Paris, hidden behind an archway. I had discovered its existence in this article in Christie’s online magazine, where they accurately describe it as a treasure trove of ephemeral publications. I was ushered into the vaults in search of various artistes, where I came across this hilarious Rock & Folk cover (“au service du rockn roll depuis 1966”). Elsewhere in the shop, Elvis Costello popped his head up…

galcante

“We have tickets, envelopes, bills. We are interested in every type of paper.” Pierre Aribaud leans over the counter, smiles and starts rolling a cigarette. Aribaud is a seasoned documentaliste at La Galcante, a unique Parisian emporium offering papiers anciens – newspapers, magazines, postcards, photographs, maps, journals – to curious collectors. It’s like Google, just with dust motes and silverfish.

TWO JAZZ! NICE…
Nick Hornby, Esquire magazine UK, 25th anniversary edition:
“The last couple of years, I’ve finally got jazz. I know it’s the cliché of my age, but it’s fantastic. I was reading something and suddenly thought I was fed up of everything I listen to being in 4/4 and sounding more or less the same, I’d like to hear something different. I found the right jazz and that was that.” Frustratingly Nick doesn’t tell us what the “Right Jazz” was for him.

THREE BOB DYLAN SHOPS FOR TIES…
… with Alan Price (and his ever-present bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale). Here’s a short excerpt from a fascinating post written by Michael Chaiken, curator of Bob Dylan’s Archives for the Helmerich Center for American Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma: “The archive boasts hundreds of hours of live recordings, going back to Dylan’s earliest coffeehouse days and continuing into his recent tours. There are many instances in the archive where a song can be studied from its initial iteration on paper, to the moment Dylan first stepped to the microphone to record it, through to its reinvention over several decades onstage. A good example of this is “Tangled Up in Blue”, from the 1975 album Blood on the Tracks – it’s a song that began on paper with the title “Dusty Sweatbox Blues”, whose first studio take was a solo acoustic performance; it was ultimately released on record with a full band and has since had its lyrics and tempo radically altered in live performance. The ability to trace out this evolution is among the archive’s greatest strengths.” The article is full of teasing references to material as yet unshown (if you’re a Dylan nut, that is), and this short piece of original footage from Dont Look Back is just great. The young shop assistant who gurns at the camera wouldn’t look out of place in the Arctic Monkeys…

FOUR LARRY ON LEVON
From a nice interview in Vintage Guitar magazine with multi-instumentalist and producer Larry Campbell:
Talk about playing in a band with Levon as the drummer… “Oh, man! You have never played a blues shuffle until you’ve played a blues shuffle with Levon Helm. It’s like you’re sitting in a hammock, rocking in the breeze. The guy was nothing but feel. Finesse had nothing to do with Levon’s drumming. There was no distance at all between who he was and what he did. Every note he sang, every beat he played, every strum on the mandolin came out of him as naturally as breathing. That kind of immediate, honest expression is irresistible. You can’t not be moved by that…

It’s not like he had perfect time or he played the most interesting fill or that he had a huge vocabulary on the drum kit – but none of that stuff mattered. What mattered was the way he would make a song feel… it was a lesson in simplicity. I’ve played with other drummers who, technically, could run rings around Levon. And I’m not saying that’s something you should avoid; a lot of different drummers knock me out. But Levon had his particular thing that was unique to him, and it was always a great place to be. Never failed.”

FIVE THE PRE-INAUGURATION CONCERT
I was going to write a 5 Things extra on this extraordinary (for all the wrong reasons) show, but too much time has passed – and Dave Holmes on Esquire.com did a great job [read it here]. Some observations, though, with a couple of excerpts from his piece. I was watching it on CNN, and it started with Trump saluting Abraham Lincoln, as the Stones’ “Heart of Stone” blasted out the PA. Dave Holmes: “You know – the song about two lovers who, try as they might, cannot feel honest emotion for one another. They have been too wounded by the events of their past to risk getting hurt again, so they just remain ice-cold. Lonely together. Numb. Donald and Melania introduce themselves to America as her new First Couple to that song, and then take their seats behind bulletproof glass. So that’s fun…”

Next came the shockingly named Frontmen of CountryTM to sing a bunch o’ songs about ’Merca, including Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis”. I thought that if, as the song has it, WC Handy did look down over America today, really, he’d think it was just the same-old-same-old. And the First Lady seemed somewhat bored –no-one seemed to have clocked that a 15-minute country medley may, in the cold of a late afternoon in Washington, seem to last an hour. Holmes in Esquire: “She said, Tell me are you a Christian child?/And I said Ma’am I am tonight!” As are all in attendance, ceremonially Christians for the night, Christians who leave out the parts about feeding the hungry and having compassion for the poor and loving your enemies and turning the other cheek and casting out the moneychangers and welcoming refugees and that whole bit about how a camel will pass through the eye of a needle before a rich man gets into heaven. Other than that, super Christian. Anyway, getting back: Memphis!

trump

Mildly headbanging – yet shockingly generic – rock poured out over the crowd, as huge video screens showed Chinooks and attack boats and drones and gung-ho militarism. Trump, in the manner of someone who knows cameras are trained on him, tried to keep in motion, pointing at things the audience couldn’t see, but he was also looking over his shoulder in a slightly weird way, almost at the crowd, but never quite meeting its eyes. Melania looked like she may have only just realised that the next four years will largely consist of smiling at a bizarre parade of “entertainment”, and meeting people she will not be able to feign interest in. The parade followed with YouTube sensations, The Piano Guys, and a bunch of silver-suited numpties dancing as DJ Ravi drummed his heart out to no great effect.

Here we moved into the realms of the tragically talentless. Truly the March of the Mediocre on Washington… Toby Keith attempted to set country music back, oh, only 50 years or so, with lyrics of the “whiskey for my man, beer for my horses” kind. You really felt for all the people who live in Nashville, tarred by this brush. By the end, after fireworks were accompanied by “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in an arrangement that Mitch Miller himself would have passed on for being too cheesy, the CNN reporters covering the whole affair looked askance and said, “Now we’re listening to “Don’t Stop Believing” – like it’s the last episode of The Sopranos!”

I’ll leave the summing up to Dave: “There’s some good country music out there, but most of it is sung by millionaires, droppin’ their Gs, namin’ American states, sayin’ aw shucks and singin’ about pickup trucks and then goin’ home and not givin’ a shit about their actual audiences. Modern mainstream country panders so hard, every song might as well start with Hey, listener: have you lost weight? Trump taught himself how to do this too, which is why 63 million Americans think a guy who lives inside a bar of gold in midtown Manhattan gives one single damn about them.”

AND FINALLY…
Towards the end of last year I wrote a piece for eye magazine – a major profile of Peter Brookes, the Times’ political cartoonist. I had the thoroughly enjoyable tast of interviewing Peter in his office early one morning before he began that day’s task.

brookes

And in researching images for the story, I came across this great Time Out cover of Frank Zappa, from the golden era when Pearce Marchbank was the art director (Peter and Pearce were at Central School of Art together). eye is out now…

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Wednesday, November 16th (late!)

 A week for Art and Guitars, starting with a trip to Bond Street…

ONE SOLACE IN ART
Searching for something to lift my spirits on the ninth of November, I turn first to the Halcyon Gallery in New Bond Street for the latest in Bob Dylan’s series of exhibitions there (it’s on until December 11th). I tried to feel what a rather over-emotional Jonathan Jones did when he reviewed it for The Guardian, but didn’t come up trumps. I liked some of the large canvases, and it was entertaining, but fell slightly short of compelling. There was a cool wall with Daniel Kramer’s On a Triumph in Woodstock shot, a video player and a set of stats… I was leaving as one of the visitors got into a rather intense discussion of the merits of Bob’s style with the curator. Her point – if it wasn’t Dylan who had done them, they would not have merited a large and fulsome West End showing. I stayed long enough for the blood to be mopped up and the combatants to agree to a draw.

bob

TWO MORE SOLACE IN ART
Then to the Bowie show, right across the road at Sothebys. It’s interesting to see how well auction houses now display their sales. This had full-wall graphics and comprehensive captions, and a nicely displayed selection of objects that ran the gamut from painting to, uh, furniture (mostly Ettore Sottsass and Memphis objets, including his red Valentine typewriter for Olivetti, of which he said, it was “the sort of thing to keep lonely poets company on Sundays in the country”).

bowie1

The audience for this melange was a fascinating bunch – wild-haired men from the fringes of rock, mingling with Eurotrash art dealers, busy edging their way past German art students and Japanese tourists. Oh, and there was the odd East End Camp Criminal-type, all shined shoes and classy cashmere coat, to give it the full Performance vibe. It was as catholic a collection (people and art) as you could imagine, Bomberg to Basquiat, via St Ives.

bowie2

THREE IT’S NOT ART…
but you gotta love this. Vintage Reggae record sleeve photography geographically located in the here and now. And how lovely to be reminded of the fabulously named Smiley Culture. It’s one of those name that makes you break into a grin if you say it out loud, much like the name of Michael Jackson’s one-time spiritual guide and rabbi (I know, I know) Schmuley Boteach, does.

covers

FOUR I MENTIONED GUITARS…
So check out these babies, from an auction a couple of weeks ago. These were my favourites, but the one on the left takes the biscuit: Fender Telecaster Electric Guitar, 1954, serial no. 5238, with Parsons-White Pull-String, owned by John Beland, Flying Burrito Brothers. It is signed extensively, including Roger McGuinn, Chet Atkins, Thumbs Carlile, Ricky Nelson, James Burton, Ray Price, George Jones, J.J. Cale, Charlie Pride, Glen Campbell, Dickey Betts, Merle Travis, Roy Nichols, and others, with case.

guitars

Fender Telecaster Electric Guitar, 1953, the body with hand-tooled leather wrap, with flight case stenciled WAYLON/NASHVILLE TN and bearing the tag of Waylon Jennings’s trucking company, Road Inc. Fender Musicmaster II/Mustang Prototype Electric Guitar, 1967, from the workbench of Leo Fender, Daphne Blue body, Candy Apple Red headstock, the body exhibiting prototypes for the three-bolt Micro-Tilt neck adjustment and a Jazzmaster-style tremolo system, with hardshell case. Gibson Style U Harp Guitar, 1908, serial no. 8618, factory order no. 1004, with original hand tooled leather case. Their estimates were all pretty high and all 4 went unsold.

AND, FINALLY, FIVE A SHAMELESS PLUG
Rocksbackpages’ excellent new compendium of Joni Mitchell articles and interviews is now available – go here. As Barney says in his introduction, “Included in Reckless Daughter are some of the most open and thoughtful interviews Mitchell has ever given, as well as some of the finest snapshots of her complex, often spiky personality.”

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Thursday, October 20th

Mark, you don’t need to tell me this is too much Dylan…!

ONE RING NO BELLS
In one of the best among the plethora of the Why Bob Dylan is a worthy Nobel Prize winner pieces – as my friend Graham emailed, “an anagram of Blonde on Blonde is BD done Nobel (although there’s an o, n and l leftover)” – Richard Williams mentioned a song that may be obscure, but is a great piece of work – “’Cross the Green Mountain”, written for the movie Gods and Generals. Dylan’s fascination with the Civil War as a country-defining event was chronicled in Chronicles, of course, and thus is a natural fit. It’s memorable not only for its fine lyric but for the extraordinary sombre slow march created by the musicians – that chugging electric rhythm, the ghostly organ, the keening violin and the tension-and-release press rolls on the drums.

 It’s a-one off, really, in the Dylan canon, and comes from a fertile period of writing songs for films – from “Things Have Changed” for Wonder Boys, through “Waiting For You” in The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood to the wonderful “Tell Ol’ Bill”* from North Country and “Huck’s Tune” from Lucky You. Most of these were finally collected together in Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8.

That said, the song’s video (it loses about four verses) is one of the stranger ones I’ve ever seen, for Bob’s hair and hat alone.

 This is from a terrific piece by Tom Junod in US Esquire from 2014 [that can be found here]: “When Ron Maxwell, the director of Gods and Generals, got it into his head to ask Dylan for an original song, his music coordinator laughed at him. But when he asked, he got a reply from Dylan’s management right away, and both Maxwell and his wife wound up listening to “Cross the Green Mountain” with Dylan and his band at a studio in the Valley. “He was there in his New Balance shoes,” Maxwell says. “He was a bit shy, I want to say. We said hi and shook hands. When they played the song back, he was looking away. I heard the whole thing, taking notes. At first I was thinking, That’s a lot of verses. Then it was finished, and I stood up and he looked at me. I said, I really like it. He said, You do? You like it? I said, I more than like it – are you kidding? And he relaxed and all the band members relaxed. The tension left the room. They let me know they were all fans of [Maxwell’s first Civil War movie] Gettysburg and watched it over and over again on the bus.”

*Google the outtakes for this song – they must have tried it ten different ways, at every tempo known to man…

TWO LANGUAGE CORNER
We can thank The Donald for at least restoring some great and underused words to the English language, such as Prig & Blowhard. This piece on the decrepit state of Trump Tower’s public spaces, and what it says about the man, is brilliant.

THREE UGLIEST ALBUM COVER OF 2016?
Kings of Leon, take a bow. And don’t do any more chat shows, if last week’s appearance on Graham Norton’s show is anything to go by. Coming off like sulky teenagers is so, well, 1980s…

kolFOUR PETULA CLARK, “LETTER TO MY YOUNGER SELF” THE BIG ISSUE
My biggest piece of advice to the younger me is something I don’t think she could do. It would be to find your own voice. Something only you have. It’s not easy. Some people find it right away. It seems to me that Amy Winehouse found hers right away. But it took me a long time. I had to go through a lot of experiences. I don’t think I found it until I was into my 30s and working in America. I was learning along the way but my real voice didn’t come out until then. I think there’s something in my voice that I can’t describe – I’m not even sure what it is. Lots of singers sing better than me but what makes you an individual, makes you stand out, is almost impossible to define.

FIVE THANK YOU, JOHN
For sending me two Dylan related things. One: a fine drawing (I don’t know who for, with John it could be from the scrapbook, or for the hallowed pages of the New Yorker). John’s latest NY cover of Trump was unceremoniously bumped (just like Trump will be on Nov 8, I hope) on the day before hitting the newsstand, by, of course, the Bob Nobel News…

johnTwo: this great excerpt from Carol Bayer Sager’s new autobiography, titled Writing Lyrics With Bob Dylan Is Weird, something that I think we all suspected, but without the great detail that CBS goes into. In Bob’s chilly barn, she looks in her bag for a pen:
I had my usual yellow-lined legal pad and he gave me a pen when I couldn’t find mine in my overstuffed bag which included a wallet, a card case, a makeup bag in case I was sleeping over, Kleenex, Chapstick, a small collection of star crystals in a small silk pouch which I carried because I was afraid to stop carrying them in case they were protecting me, a croc case for my Lactaid and my Stevia, cards with people’s names on them I no longer knew, a mirror given me by Elizabeth with undistorted magnification, my eyeglasses, a rubber tip that a dental hygienist had dropped in one day, and scores of useless other things that just kind of piled up in there.
“Thank you,” I said, taking my head out of my bag long enough to take his ballpoint pen, which I wished had a thicker tip.
I refocused. “So, do you have any ideas of what you feel like writing?”
“Well, I’ve got a little bit of an idea.”
He mumbled his words very softly. I thought he said “I godda libble bid a deer.”

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Friday, October 14th

clintonsA late posting for most of this, covering more than just the last week, in the usual slightly disorganised way. In breaking news, I’m obviously glad that Bob got his due, finally. Twitter, predictably, provided amusement (left). And great to see that Bob was in fine voice at the Desert Trip last weekend in California. A fantastic and ominous Masters of War (here) was even relevant to the current election:
“Let me ask you one question,
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness,
Do you think that it could?
Well I think you will find
When your death takes its toll,
All the money you made
Won’t buy back your soul…”

ONE NOTES FROM THE MERCURY AWARDS: A DREAM
As I sat idly wondering if one could write a song with lyrics entirely provided by episode titles from The Real Housewives of Orange County (“Ooh baby baby/You’re swimming with the sharks/Beneath judgy eyes/and Tahitian Skies…”) I remembered that I’d watched the Mercury Awards the other day while, as Tom Waits would say, several sheets to the wind. I had jotted down notes on a page of that day’s Guardian, but when I came to look at them I couldn’t understand how any of it fitted together, so here they are, as a piece of abstract poetry, perhaps.

A weird walk-through alphabetised history of Mercury’s/J for J/Klaxons instead of Amy W/Skepta genuinely modest/almost only genuine moment in a night of untrammelled narcissism…

Unappealing 1975/ripping off Bowie’s “Fame”/a strange and ferociously efficient sound/“Blurred Lines” was sued…

Radiohead out-of-place before a musical chicken-in-a-basket crowd/not really listening…

Benjamin Clementine/what happens when a good backstory and striking looks come together/song is a farrago of music theatre clichés run through a Nina Simone simulator…

Michael Kiwanuka/the Terry Callier du nos jours/left his song at home/so little movement in this dullness/“Fantastic Stuff” appaz, according to/Lauren Laverne – smug host…

TWO IT’S LATER THAN YOU THINK
A confusing episode of Later, which is almost too exhausting to parse, containing as it did men walking around the stage in the name of grime, t-shirts alternately commemorating Buddy Rich and rallying the “Give 17-year-olds the Vote” segment of the audience, and even acapella songstresses. What did we learn? That Lisa Hannigan has an extraordinary voice, especially at the closing of her song; that Barry Gibb has sort-of-lost his extraordinary voice and his new band compensates with three extra guitarists (one his son), that Slaves are throwback rubbish, and that Jools slightly overplays when sitting-in with Norah Jones (who had a really tight band, great drummer, interesting guitarist). Oh, and that Declan McCann (t-shirt owner, below) is precociously interesting, but only if you happen to be under 25.

declan

THREE NEIL YOUNG COVERS
On the extended version of that episode of Later, Norah Jones lit into a tune that made me look up – Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied”. It’s a song that almost defies a cover– it exists in a ragged (wonderfully so) version cut live on the ill-starred Time Fades Away tour, and is a piece of caustic autobiography set to music, mostly about Buffalo Springfield. She has form where Young’s songs are concerned, playing this song live at NealFest in 2015 and playing “Down by the River” at The Bridge Concerts with Young himself. I assume it speaks in some way to her about her experience of the music biz – she did it well, giving it the right shade of downbeat anger. It sent me back to another odd Young song cover – a track on David Bowie’s Heathen, a CD that I’d bought as my wife loves the wonderful “Everyone Says Hi”. It’s “I’ve Been Waiting for You”, from Young’s first solo album, a strange and brilliant piece of work. Bowie covers it with keening and brassy synths and truckloads of echo, but keeps the original arrangement pretty intact. As does Chip Taylor on a third NY cover version that I found buried deep in an iTunes folder – “Words (Between the Lines of Age)” from MOJO Presents: Harvest Revisited, which suits his parched voice to a T.

FOUR JOHN PLATANIA PLAYS “ANGEL OF THE MORNING” WITH CHIP TAYLOR

platania
I’ve been listening obsessively to John Platania’s guitar solo on “Sweet Thing” since it was released on Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now Vol 2, 3 and 4. Hard to believe it didn’t end up on the 1974 record as it matches any performance on the original two-disc set. And here he was, accompanying Chip Taylor in a tiny room downstairs at Clerkenwell pub, The Slaughtered Lamb. Taylor, last of the Yonkers Cowboys, weaves stories of growing up with his brothers (one, Barry, a Volcanologist, the other, Jon Voigt, actor) in New York in the early fifties as Platania drapes beautiful filigreed guitar lines around the shoulders of Taylor’s deceptively simple four or five-chord country songs. This is not Nashville country, but a kind of cowboy country, a mesas and plains music, big on telling tales and dispensing sage advice. Each and every song was electrified by Platania’s sure touch – one moment Tennessee rockabilly, the next an orchestral pealing of notes tumbling down – and if the heart came from Taylor’s whispered and wry voice, the soul came from John’s Stratocaster.

FIVE “I’M TRAVELLING LIGHT, IT’S AU REVOIR…”
A few favourite paragraphs from David Remnick’s great New Yorker piece on Leonard Cohen:
And then, like my mother, [Cohen] offered what could only have been the complete catalogue of his larder: water, juice, wine, a piece of chicken, a slice of cake, “maybe something else.” In the hours we spent together, he offered many refreshments, and, always, kindly. “Would you like some slices of cheese and olives?” is not an offer you are likely to get from Axl Rose. “Some vodka? A glass of milk? Schnapps?” And, as with my mother, it is best, sometimes, to say yes. One day, we had cheeseburgers-with-everything ordered from a Fatburger down the street and, on another, thick slices of gefilte fish with horseradish.

Leonard studied; he worked at the clothing factory, where he picked up a useful skill for his career as a touring musician: he learned to fold suits so they didn’t wrinkle. But, as he wrote in a journal, he always imagined himself as a writer, “raincoated, battered hat pulled low above intense eyes, a history of injustice in his heart, a face too noble for revenge, walking the night along some wet boulevard, followed by the sympathy of countless audiences… loved by two or three beautiful women who could never have him.”

And this lovely quote from Dylan, when Remnick asks him his thoughts on Cohen… “When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius,” Dylan said. “Even the counterpoint lines – they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.” There’s also a delightful bit where Bob talks about the similar craft (and crafty-ness) shared by both Irving Berlin and Cohen.

AND FINALLY… PLAY VINYL WITH NEW £5 NOTE
From What HiFi “The plastic £5 note isn’t just waterproof, tear-proof and recyclable, it can also hold a tune… The new fiver is made from polymer (plastic) and is claimed to be stronger, cleaner and safer as a result. And it seems the new hardier design brings into play plenty of other uses – such as acting as a needle on a vinyl record. YouTube user Michael Ridge tested the fiver on an Abba record. It’s not quite as simple as it looks. Ridge also used a contact microphone and a small amplifier to muster up the sound. But, yes, the new £5 note does do the job of a particularly poor needle.”

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Tuesday, August 24th

Untitled-4ONE LAWRENCE OF ARABIA’S SCARF, OR JOHN LENNON’S CUFFLINKS?
Or, hell, the Parliamentary robe of Lord “Lucky” Lucan. Your choice. They’re in a particularly weird auction at Christies called Out of the Ordinary. Accurately, I’d say. 14th September, 2016. Add it to your diary.

TWO LIZA WITH A Z, STREISAND WITH AN S
In urgent breaking news, Barbra Streisand told NPR: “Siri pronounces my name wrong. [It’s] Streisand with a soft S, like sand on the beach. I’ve been saying this for my whole career. And so what did I do? I called the head of Apple, Tim Cook, and he delightfully agreed to have Siri change the pronunciation of my name, finally, with the next update on 30 September. So let’s see if that happens because I will be thrilled.” Much simpler than writing and recording a song about it, as Liza Minnelli did – “Liza with a Z, not Lisa with an S…” I tried to get Siri to pronounce “Liza Minnelli”, but she just kept asking me if I meant Liz Kent, a friend. Siri then sent me to a site on the web where people have recorded their own pronunciations of famous names. It asks you to rate their efforts. Really, we don’t deserve to survive Climate Change.

THREE THE MUSIC IN THE MIMICRY
There’s something extraordinary watching as an impressionist performs his sleight-of-voice to suddenly inhabit another person’s sound. At the top of this video on The Guardian’s website, Alistair McGowan’s Dara Ó Briain is astonishing, as is the sight of Rory Bremner and McGowan essaying their Boris Johnson’s, pointing out the “ooeeew” sound, which is all you can notice when it cuts to the clip of Boris himself. Nailing George Galloway with “Tainted Love” and Nigel Farage with “My Way” is very neat, too.

FOUR HAVE YOU HEARD THE BRISTOL HUM?

bristolhum.jpg

This is a fascinating short on the BBC Futures site – we’re deep into the world of Fortean Times here… secret government low-frequency radio waves or tinnitus or your body telling you that you’re run down? “It sounds to me the sound of a speaker where the volume’s been left up but there’s no music playing…

FIVE DIDN’T THINK WE’D GET OUT OF HERE WITHOUT SOMETHING ON BOB, DID WE?
I met the wonderfully named Colton Huelle at a memorial celebration of Sam Charters’ life in Connecticut early this spring. Colton is Kelsey’s boyfriend, and she’d grown up next door to the Charters’ and at the end of the day, somehow the topic turned to Dylan. I promised to send him a compilation that I made years ago of unreleased Bob songs, lost his address, found it again and sent it. He wrote a really thoughtful email back – here’s a bit where he talks about Bob: “Your package arrived just a few days before Kelsey and I saw Dylan in New Hampshire. During the concert, two things happened:
1) He forgot the words to the “She lit the burner on the stove” verse of “Tangled Up In Blue.” So he mumbled and mumbled until he finally sang (without losing the tune, somehow): “What are these lines? / I guess I don’t even know these lines/ …from me to you… Tangled up in blue.” It was both very sad and very delightful.
2) While Dylan was singing one of the songs from his Sinatra cover album, someone in the audience yelled “JUDAS.” Can you believe it? Kelsey and I spent a lot of the car ride home debating the motivations for shouting that. Was he just trying to make a funny reference? Was there malice behind it? And how often have jokers like that pulled the same stunt since the RAH concert in 66?”

ON THE MUSIC PLAYER
A tape made in 1975 of Paul Simon on the BBC featuring the legendary, and sadly late, Toots Thielemans. It’s also on YouTube here, in a much better quality version.


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Tuesday, June 28th

ONE THE MOST TIMELY QUESTION IS, WHY?

beatlesFrom this month’s issue of Vanity Fair, the maestro Beatles watch. Aesthetically a complete non-starter, this is what you get: “The 13 Beatles’ album titles are written all around the bespoke dial, with a special “Help” index at 4 o’clock which recalls the cover of the iconic album released in 1965. The silver galvanic dial matches the polished steel bracelet. It features the official Beatles logo and a date window at 3 o’clock. This unique timepiece paying tribute to the legendary Fab Four is limited to 3,000 pieces.” A “Help” index?You can join the discussion at #RWThe Beatles.” What discussion? Who’s discussing this? “It retails at around £950.” I know, I know, we can’t wait ’til we get to the shop… “Each maestro Beatles will be presented with a dedicated watch case celebrating the music icons. An impressive drum with the official Beatles logo decorates the top of the box.” Believe me, the drum box is not impressive…

TWO THIS IS WHAT THEY WERE LISTENING TO FIFTY YEARS AGO IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA…! KHJ29June66.jpg

THREE THE QUIETEST MUSIC VIDEO EVER
Greenpeace: “Through his music, acclaimed Italian composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi has added his voice to those of eight million people from across the world demanding protection for the Arctic. Einaudi performed one of his own compositions on a floating platform in the middle of the Ocean, against the backdrop of the Wahlenbergbreen glacier (in Svalbard, Norway).”

 

FOUR CRUISING UP PARK LANE AT NIGHT IN A DROP-TOP MERC…
…with Joan Armatrading’s “Love & Affection” and “Down to Zero” on the sound system. An enjoyably bonkers Chelsea School of Art reunion/event ended up with a lift in Kwok’s new car with a suitably late-seventies soundtrack. I was recently reminded of her odd, stern, almost solemn voice when I watched current act Rationale on Later… with Jools Holland. And those songs still sound unusual as pop hits…

FIVE SNAP SHOT!
Loving the groovy table at Snap Gallery – the place for all your Rock music photographic needs. I remember Guy’s first gallery in the Custard Factory in Birmingham, which, if memory serves me well, featured Daniel Kramer’s photos as its opening exhibition.

! snapdesk

And now Dan Kramer returns to Snap in Piccadilly Arcade for A Year and a Day: “Daniel Kramer first photographed bob Dylan on 27 August 1964 in Woodstock, and his final photographs of Bob Dylan were taken on 28 August 1965, just over a year later. Dan was in the studio when Bob Dylan recorded Bringing It All Back Home, and took the Grammy-nominated cover photograph for that album, and its follow up Highway 61 Revisited. He photographed Dylan live in many guises – solo, duetting with Joan Baez (triptych, below), and in his final session, electrified with The Hawks at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium – and behind the scenes, relaxing off stage with friends.”

! snapdylan

AND ON THE MUSIC PLAYER…
to the right, from last week’s post, hear Van Morrison and the Caledonia Soul Orchestra awesomely funk up “Sweet Thing” as John Platania’s guitar and David Hayes’ bass burn up the Rainbow. From the recently released It’s Too Late To Stop Now, Volumes II, III and IV.

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