On the bus today I looked at the crowds and remembered something I once wrote in a story about how the people were just ‘bundles of flesh and bones wrapped in skin’ – so the character thought to himself as he sat on the top deck of the bus. I was at street level coming home, the bus being a bendy one, the same kind I had journeyed into the West End on this morning where, sat opposite, a man was in his iPod world and, as I always do, I wondered what he was listening to but looking him over (very non-descript) could not guess.
I scored a major victory in the Guess What The Stranger’s Taste In Music Is game a long time ago whilst sitting on a park bench with a girlfriend watching a girl pass by carrying a record bag (remember them?). I suggested Kate Bush and intercepted the girl to find out – correct!
I was impressed with myself, so was the girlfriend. It’s one of my major achievements in life, along with getting this far. Perhaps this makes my life rather...unexceptional – and it could be – but all things being relative, if I compare my life to the kind spent working 6 days-a-week for peanuts to provide barely enough for the family with whom this imaginary person shares a flat in a Hackney tower block where he sits slumped on the sofa every night, too tired to think, or act otherwise, wishing he was anywhere but there living that kind of life...mine doesn’t seem to bad and my achievements not so small...because, I tell myself, I’ve managed to achieve not living that kind of life.
But do we choose a kind of life or does Lady Luck throw the dice for us? I’ll leave that question right there...
On the bus my fiction came back to me as if I was the character...it took over, you might say, because I saw the people as he did, not as I wrote him seeing them...but I should say that the character was probably ‘me’ to begin with, to an extent, except that he was an agent for a secret organisation about to start work on infiltrating the gang that worked on behalf of aliens who had started taking over the minds of the population...something like that.
The story has long since joined all the sheets of paper packed into draws and cupboards which constitutes my Work (finished and unfinished) – my Life’s Work! I fantasise that after I’m Gone it will all be published and pored over by Lit Crits in ‘papers that have realised my genius too late – ha-ha. Forget Bolano...and Nabokov’s unfinished work...what about mine?
So, that will not happen. I was not born to literary greatness. Few are. Few strike me as Great anyway, and what matters other than our own opinion of a novel? Experts may unanimously praise some writers but their opinion is irrelevant if we do not see it ourselves. I concede, also, that my boundless enthusiasm will not convince the refusenik that fails to hear the brilliance of, say, Charlie Parker. That is the way they listen. The penny may drop later, I sometimes tell myself. But what does it matter?
I console myself in times of doubt regarding the value of my life that I did once write a book about jazz which, according to some correspondents, sparked enthusiasm for certain artists. OK, it’s not on a par with Darwin or even Kerouac, but it’s something...
I joked with the shop assistant in Oxfam the other day that I was making my book-buying decisions based on their size, these days, because I live in a small flat. ‘Oh, why don’t you move house?’ he said with a smile. To which I replied ‘I can’t afford it, I spend all my money in here.’ I handed over three very slim books to prove my point.
I was only half-joking anyway. I truly do not wish to read anything thicker than two centimetres, on average, although I could be deceived by very small font size, in which case I should be stopping at around page 12 instead of the usual 30.
Fiction is such a bore, but as I told someone the other day, I love the thrill of the chase (as I did when desperate for girlfriends in my youth) – but like them, what follows is so often a disappointment.
I should say that the disappointment was no doubt mutual, except for those I ‘ditched’, as we used to say. There have been a few. But I’m not getting into that right here.
I now lord it over all the writers of novels...picking and choosing as I wish and, yes, ‘ditching’ them at will – the power! There’s nothing like slinging a supposed ‘classic’ away is there? ‘Hah!’ We tell ourselves. ‘Is that the best they can do? I demand better! My taste is more refined...and I am master of my own reading matter of nothing else!’ Well, that’s what I would say to myself, if I thought about it.
Authors have a talent (for pleasing publishers, if nothing else)...but when all’s said and done, most are just a bundle of flesh and bones wrapped in skin...
'Bamn' (Penguin, 1971) - anthology of 'radical and visionary movements, groups, and cells of protest and propaganda of the past five years'. Lots of artwork too. 'BAMN' stands for By Any Means Necessary, by the way. 'Do It!' (Simon & Schuster, 1970) - Yippie classic, the whole book is a work of art thanks to design by Quentin Fiore. Includes chapter titles such as 'Every Revolutionary Needs A Color TV' and 'Money Is Shit - Burning Money, Looting and Shoplifting Can Get You High' - love it. I may scan some of the contents in the future because the layout is so good.
Bruce Pennington's cover for the NEL (1969) edition of Amis's guide to sci-fi fiction from '61 is one of my favourite covers of all time - iconic, simple, pure vision of the saucer phenomenon. The Gernsback from 1950 is just so of its time that I had to include it - dial-up webcam anyone?
I'm sure you can see why 'The Paint House' (1972) cover by Omnific/Martin Causer is here. Who doesn't love a NEL Richard Allen cover? Joe Hawkins 'swapped his boots and braces for a velvet-collared Abercrombie coat', y'know - so did I back then, although unlike Joe, it wasn't to become a 'city-slicker'. Nostalgia necessitates it's inclusion here.
No designer credited for the Mayflower-Dell first ed of 'The Spying Game' (1967) but I think it's a gem, exploiting the Bond factor as if real spies frequently encounter barely-clothed babes pointing pistols at them. Finally, Fiore & McLuhan made the perfect marriage in '67, a landmark integration of typography and text which you should buy on sight if that kind of thing appeals.
Watching ‘Blade Runner’ again this afternoon, with no intention of seeing it all the way through, I got as far as the ‘retirement’ of Zhora, which must rank as one of the most incredible screen killings ever filmed. As with other replicants, her life is imbued with a kind of poetic tragedy which, in her case, is only created during her dying moments. It would have been far more obvious to simply prove Deckard’s ability but instead Scott opts to draw out her demise in a sequence accompanied by music designed to encourage sympathy as she crashes through several panes of glass, falling once before rising again and finally landing amid a shower of broken glass.
Our feelings regarding the plight of the dangerous replicants mirror the question of Rachael’s true nature and her response to the dilemma. What is she supposed to feel about having feelings?
Advanced replicants may develop emotions; therefore we in turn can feel for them. Scott cleverly elicits compassion when really there should be none for killing machines.
Sean Young as Rachael is beautiful and plays distant-but-vulnerable brilliantly. In this respect she could be a model for every Hollywood idol who has ever seduced us before being exposed as human by real life tragedy or misdemeanours. The reverse is true for Rachael, but we care about something that has only been granted human characteristics by design, don’t we? The sight of a teardrop slowly trickling down that immaculate cheek is enough to rouse empathy in us.
I never thought Rachael truly beautiful until seeing her this time when, at last, I was captivated in the way that Scott intended.
As with most sci-fi films, despite being set in the future they cannot help but reflect the time they were made in certain ways. In 1982, I suppose it did not seem possible that smoking would eventually be banned in enclosed public places. Ironically, LA, where the film is set, would be amongst the first cities to ban the weed in 1998.
Yet Rachael swathed in smoke as she is first interviewed by Deckard is more in tune with Scott’s neo-noir vision, of course, because everyone smoked in film noir. The shoulders of her otherwise immaculately styled suit still has a hint of the shoulder pad, whilst her hair and make-up refer back to the film’s visual roots (as far as lighting is concerned) in the 50s. Perhaps those shoulder pads have put me off all these years because they suggest power dressing Thatcherites back in the 80s. Crazy, I know, to resist the allure of Young because of that. But I feel the same way about most supposed beauties of 80s cinema, which is surely excusable because they do illustrate an era of sartorial catastrophe.
Hollywood is all about artifice masquerading as reality. Actors only replicate human emotion, don’t they? ‘Blade Runner’ could, perhaps, be as much about the nature of acting as it is about advanced science in relation to intelligence and emotion.
A part Bowie was born to play, you might say...unless he had never made it as rock’n’roll star and become the alladin sane we all love from his days as a thin white alien.
He plays the role perfectly, of course, needing to do little but be Bowie, be thin, pale and photogenic.
There are echoes of Bowie’s reality in Roeg’s adaptation of Trevis’s fiction – when he sits in the back of a limo as he did during the Arena documentary...and the fame, the wealth and his seemingly detached attitude towards it all. Bowie interviewed in recent times seems very down to Earth. Here he lands as an alien, which is how he came to the majority of us back in the 70s.
There’s much to enjoy in this film, not least the cinematography, but mostly Roeg’s artistry and admirable refusal to forge simple linearity from the story. As befits the subject of space travel, time here is not always linear. Mysterious characters from an undefined organisation scheme and kill. What would otherwise be the slow process of empire-building happens in the blink of a lens-covered eye.
One particular scene should strike a chord with all who have fried their brains with too much media imagery. Bowie sits watching a bank of TVs, stimulated at first, but gradually deteriorating into a state of agitation before crying “Get out of my mind, all of you. Leave my mind alone!”. Roeg splices together the screen shots brilliantly here to give the experience of information overload. Later he interweaves a sequence from ‘The Third Man’ into scenes from the film.
The only faults are some of the over-indulgent sex scenes, although Freudians might have a field day on the significance of a gun as a sex aid. Coupled with some dreadful music at times, it occasionally feels like something that belongs in an X-rated-only 70s sleaze pit, rather than an art house.
In a final nod to real life, the alien makes a record. Frustratingly, as the scientist checks it out in a store by donning headphones, we’re denied his experience. I’d like to have heard someone’s idea of music made by an alien visitor. If Bowie had been given the chance to do it, I guess it would have sounded like his work with Eno around that time.
Courtesy of Mego Editions, Gilbert’s first solo album gets its debut domestic CD release. Most of this was commissioned for choreographer Michael Clarke, but you may dance to in your head, if you wish.
The 'Do You Me? I Did/Swamp' pieces begin peacefully with an angelic chorus backing waves which lap the shingle beach of a digital shoreline (!?) whilst, somewhere out there, a whale may or may not be calling through the depths of space. I was reluctant to mention whales in case you got the impression that this is akin to an ambient New Age record designed for relaxation. But those do sound like whale calls.
The next two parts develop into something more sinister, moving to a sluggish beat as sounds snake from ear-to-ear (you must listen in headphones) and it begins to come across as some kind of Rave nightmare where the normal ecstatic rush becomes a battlefield in sonic trenches pounded by heavy artillery whilst you’re half-asleep. Fantastic.
'Here Visit' sets up a mesmerising pattern that’s punctuated with looped violins in preparation for the final sensory assault that is 'U, Mu, U'. The rhythm intensifies for this deranged dance, as if Gilbert is driving out the demons of old Art Rock.
Like any sensible person, he ditched the guitar for the endless sonic possibilities of technology. His roots, after all, were in sound experiments during the late-60s before, aged 30, embarking on that successful interlude known as Wire.
So he finally returned to his source. Perhaps Wire were never enough, musically, but they gave him the platform from which to launch a series of sometimes stunning solo works such as 'Ab Ovo', 'Insiding' and 'In Esse'.
The quarter century mark seems as good a time as any to start at this beginning and catch up on stages of an absorbing journey.
I watched this for the first time last night. Polonsky was blacklisted three years later (1951) as part of Hollywood’s Commie purge and it is a classic critique of capitalism (we’re all just numbers and the corrupt Western world revolves around money) if you want to read it that way. Although there’s some very noirish lighting at times it’s not about mean streets stalked by a lone crusader for justice. Instead, Joe Morse (John Garfield) is continually trying to save his brother, played by Thomas Gomez, from financial ruin during the big changes in the numbers racket. The dialogue, written by Polonsky, is sharp, intelligent and during Gomez’s final scene, painfully poetic. This is a great piece of work and tragic testimony to talent that was cast out for beliefs which America was not willing to entertain during the witch-hunt years.
50 years ago some great recordings emerged - agreed?
Yes - Ornette Coleman’s ‘Shape Of Jazz To Come’, Dave Brubeck’s ‘Time Out’, Miles Davis’s ‘Kind Of Blue’, Charles Mingus’s ‘Ah Um’, John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’.
Also in the studio, Tony Hancock and company reciting Galton and Simpson’s classic sketch, ‘The Poetry Society’, which has meant almost as much to me as those magnificent albums. Well, it’s made me laugh more, at least.
Whilst Ornette had created a new chapter in the avant-garde of jazz culture, East Cheam’s would-be revolutionary was, as usual, making little headway in his quest for self-improvement.
I was tempted to just post the whole show, but you can read it here and buy it here (for just 95p as I write).
For my money this is Hancock’s finest half hour, where classic jokes abound as our Tony desperately tries to ingratiate himself with the ‘East Cheam Cultural Progressive Society’.
The joke is partly on the culturally pretentious but, as always, really revolves around Hancock and his aspirations. In another sketch he can found on his bed, struggling to read Bertrand Russell between having to reach for the dictionary every few seconds. Galton and Simpson would later explore failed aspirations in the tragic-comic figure of Harold Steptoe.
I used to enjoy dropping this part of the show into my DJ sets sometimes:
Hancock: We’re the ‘avant-guard’ of the New Culture. We’re dedicated to setting up a new order of things; determined to establish a new set of values; to break away from the bonds that threaten to stifle the cultural and creative activities of Man’s mind.
Sid: Blimey, another load of layabouts.
Hancock: We are not layabouts, we are artists, mush. Writers, poets, thinkers, all men who are seriously perturbed about the state of the world at the moment.
Sid: And what are you lot going to do about it?
Hancock: We are going to show the world the real truth, by setting them an example, developing our superior intellects. Culture, mate, that’s where the hope of the world lies. And a more cultural mob than us you wouldn’t find outside the Chelsea Embankment. Twenty-seven throbbing intellects, raring to go.
Down the years I’ve been able to relate to this show, as a dedicated, dole-dwelling anti-establishment poet – ha! But you have to be able to laugh at yourself, if only retrospectively.
Half a century has not blunted the sharp, cynical wit on display here. Regarding the subject matter of phoney cultural rebellion, it will probably never be out of date.
It’s very dark around here, sonically-speaking. I like it that way. This is predominantly electronic music, but sewn into the frabric of both albums there are strings, flutes, horns, bowed cello...clanging bells...voices (one in a foreign language, another as if calling on the radio from out in space)...and howling wolves, snarling wolves, which on Ben Frost’s ‘The Carpathians’ create a mood of terror that fully exploits our fear. Despite the title, Frost’s album does not grab you by the throat. It stalks like that pack of wolves, and when it erupts into aural violence, it's like something crawling out of the dark rather than flying, fangs bared, at your face. What you learn after one listen is that even the gentler sounds of a simple harp or piano riff are lulling you into a false sense of security because no sooner have you been allowed to relax than something raw and evil creeps out of the undergrowth. Frost has not created a diverse selection to savour, but more of a complete concept involving recurring sound motifs and that atmosphere of solemn dread. Sounds re-emerge in mutated forms...persistently preying on our preconceptions, our expectations, perhaps, of what an album should offer. This one is all the better for presenting one very menacing vision.
Likewise, Khate creates a unified concept of sound which refuses to be bright, merry, rhythm-driven or corralled into a generic cliché of electronic music. Her darkness may, in one sense, be lighter than Frosts, but only in that it’s not as caustic. The mood throughout, though, is joyously downbeat, which is not to say dull or depressing. Cheekily, she contrasts the cavernous heartbeat and solemn tones of ‘Love’ with what sounds like the sampled, looped guitar riff from Marley’s ‘Could You Be Loved’ around the halfway mark. It’s the closest this album gets to being light-hearted or ‘funky’. As the strings of the last track, ‘Comforting The Meat’, float free of harmony’s gravity whilst metal clangs in the distance and digital beasts chatter, I can think of no finer testimony to the pleasure of exploratory sound.
"Is that you?" Asked the middle-aged American woman behind the counter as I put the book down.
How could I answer? I just chuckled and said "No." I thought she was simply saying I looked like Bill. But I was wearing a cap, not a trilby.
She stared down at the cover, saying "It looks like you," in a level tone, not laughing, barely smiling.
She couldn't really think it was me, or that I would be buying a biography about myself. Yet the way she said it gave the impression that she could almost be thinking that.
The falling leaves drift by my window
The falling leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sunburned hands I used to hold
Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I'll hear old winter's song
But I miss you most of all, my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall
Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I'll hear old winter's song
But I miss you most of all, my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall
I miss you most of all, my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall
- ‘Autumn Leaves’ (Korma/Mercer)
I was going to suggest that there are as many versions of the song ‘Autumn Leaves’ as there are examples of the real thing laying around on the road right now – but that would be a lie.
Perhaps there are as many recordings as there are leaves currently curled up in the branches of the tree outside my window; orphans being cradled in its spindly, naked arms having dropped from the London plane tree nearby.
The song itself was adopted in a way, being born from the pen of Joseph Kosma for the 1945 ballet ‘Le Rendez-Vous’ before Jaques Prevert added lyrics for the 1946 film ‘Les Portes de la Nuit’. A year later the great American writer Johnny Mercer put his own words to the tune that would become a standard for both vocalists and jazz musicians.
If I was foolish enough to second guess the version you know best I’d put my money on the Cannonball Adderley take for ‘Somethin’ Else’. Why? Just because I reckon you’re the type to realise that Adderley and Miles with Art Blakey in the driving seat is a line-up you couldn’t resist. I pay you that compliment without even knowing you. That’s how generous I am.
Then again, you could be a Matt Monro fan, but my guess here is that you really only dig ‘On Days Like These’ because it opens ‘The Italian Job’ so sublimely. Still, dismiss Matt with a wave of your hand if you like but I really enjoy him singing ‘Autumn Leaves’. Something in that rich voice evokes nostalgia in me for days I never really knew. Days in the 60s, when I was old enough to be married and live in a house with a bar for entertaining all my hip friends by mixing great cocktails to the sound of Matt Monro. But I’m not that old. And I’m not even married.
Mercer’s lyrics were never going to escape Sinatra’s tonsils, lungs and other essential parts in the process of singing. Was there a great song that he didn’t record? Do I really need to tell you that he does an amazing job? No, of course not, and when I listen it wrenches the romantic that lurks in a dusty corner of my soul right out into the light. So too does Paul Desmond on the session for his 1962 album, ‘Desmond Blue’. This has everything going for it, from the arrangement by Bob Prince to the flute-playing at the start, the strings and, of course, Desmond himself. Like Sinatra, he could deliver a melody like no-one else. In the mid-70s he would join Chet Baker for CTI and record another version which, despite being late in the day for both, proves they still had enough in the tank to show young ‘uns what Cool is all about.
Those great thinkers in the art of the eighty-eights, Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans, have applied their improvisational genius to it, but more surprisingly, so did Manfred Mann. Yes, you read right (here I give you no credit, thinking you know as little about MM as me, sorry). As well as penning the theme to ‘Ready Steady Go’ along with other 60s Pop-tastic hits, they can be found taking a brief (2min) trip on piano and vibes through ‘Autumn Leaves. I actually like this version, perhaps because it doesn’t attempt to improvise at any great length (were they capable?). Instead, at a steady, finger-snapping pace, it offers the kind of Soul-ful style that became so popular in that era. I could almost imagine a Mod being fooled by it, for a minute, and feeling slightly embarrassed when discovering it’s Manfred Mann.
Michel Legrand turned it into a theme for a film that never existed but, hearing it, I imagine myself dancing with Deneuve on a boulevard viewed through a lens by Jaques Demy.
Diamanda Galas shreds the song in her own inimitable, gothic horror fashion, ripping out its heart and gargling on the blood. If it evokes images of midnight churchyards and bats flapping around the belfry, we might also imagine poor Johnny Mercer there too, turning in his grave. The greatest songs are destined to become musical crime scenes at some point, but for as long as the leaves keep falling this time of year, people will be enjoying ‘Autumn Leaves’ it in all its guises.