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Archive for February, 2011


February 27, 2011

27-2-11 Antique Pistols

27-2-11 Antique Pistols

My last year at art college and the start of my post-grad teacher-training year was marked by the rise of the punk undead. Birmingham was a little behind the metropolitan wave, notified of the barbarian marauders via the reviews in NME, Sounds and Melody Maker (even Zigzag began to rip up its cover graphics).
A post-grad student who announced that he’d been able to get tickets to see ‘a little band by the name of… The Eagles’ at the NEC was met with loud boredom instead of the warm wave of cold envy he’d evidently anticipated.
I was no stranger to Pink Floyd, though I was aware that as each album superseded Ummagumma they were turning out immaculate product rather than sustained experiments; I had Terry Riley’s ‘A Rainbow In Curved Air’ and even hunted down the double LP ‘Persian Surgery Dervishes’ and ‘Church Of Anthrax’ with John Cale; I accumulated John Fahey’s stately, measured (or ‘interminable’) versions of country blues rescued from crackling shellac records; I liked Barclay James Harvest’s first couple of LP’s and seemed the only person i knew who had a soft spot for The Enid; Soft Machine’s Third still got regular plays, mostly Robert Wyatt’s ‘Moon In June’; I’d started to get drawn into country, or at least New Country – The James Gang (coincidentally ‘Thirds’), The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band ‘Dream’, Red Rhodes steel guitar ‘Velvet Hammer In A Cowboy Band’…
I was perfectly placed to be swept away in the surge-tide of spit and safety-pins, though on reflection it was a welcome absolution from trying to be hip, license to retire into the eccentric backwaters of my LP collection.
Gee’d up by the famous Sniffin’ Glue magazine cover and the wayward conventions of puritan hedonism described in the press, bands formed around available equipment and the assurance that more than three chords were superfluous and decadent.
I retired hurt from my first exposure to punk – The Boys, at some club in town. The quality was indecipherable, the volume was industrial. audience and band pogo’d and spat, not at each other but as the etiquette. The more enthusiastic orgiasts in newly-convened local bands regarded post-gig phlegm lapels as applause you could wear. Hawking up a Green Gilbert to flick from the peak of a pogo was skill to acquire akin to the footballer’s opportunist header into the goal-net.
…so it was out of idle interest that I looked at the Sex Pistols’ 2007 reunion gig (thirty years since ‘Bollocks’), Skyplussed to view at leisure.
The thing about The Pistols was that they had the luck to be prodded on TV by Bill Grundy on prime-time TV. Johnny Rotten said ‘shit’ and then kept schtum; it was Glen Matlock who unloaded the broadside of rudery at Grundy’s expense. They sounded like a mad band – though Steve Jones gave the three-chord myth a kicking – and in the meeja meringue of folk-devil worship whipped up in its wake Rotten’s Medusa glare was genuinely the face of their nothing-to-lose gang against the world. It seemed no coincidence that he looked exactly like Mervyn Peake’s pencil-sketches of Steerpike in Titus Groan – another character working his way up from the kitchens to the palace by any means necessary.
Julie Burchill said in Ray Gosling’s survey of the hooligan history of English pop, ‘Crooning Buffoons’, that what was so refreshing about The Pistols was that they didn’t aspire to be upwardly mobile, they just wanted to be working class but more so… getting pissed and lying around. So that was Burchill’s take on ‘working class’; never let a contradiction get in the way of quotable cred.
Malcolm McLaren became the UK’s Andy Warhol, with Jamie Reid as his cut-and-paste poster-factory.
Like Abbie Hoffman’s Kennedy-era sabotage of the news agencies, circulating the story that LBJ had lightened the Airforce One flight back from Dulles to Washington by, erm, violating the dead President’s neck-wound, the fashionable adoption of Anarchy as a youth-movement was alarming because for a second you realised that you believed it might be a possibility. It was democracy that seemed ripped’n’torn and held together with pins and slogans.
Thirty years on, BBC 4 shows the vid of the 30-years-on reunion gig and history repeats itself at The Brixton Academy as tragedy and farce. The Pistols as their own tribute-band. The musicians play with stolid fidelity to the record, leaving John Lydon to strut to and fro like Jarry’s Pére Ubu, showing off his lardy belly, gurning like Wilfred Brambell and intoning the lyrics in a way that made you grateful for Mark E. Smith’s auteurist disdain for style. Look out for appearances as Wicked Uncle Abenazar in seasonal productions of Aladdin at an end-of-the pier near you.
I don’t know what this would all mean to a generation that knows John Lydon as a contestant in ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’ or him off the butter ads. The crowd sing along to the anthems of bile like the audience at a Gang Show. Frank Zappa said that no musical fashion became popular without a corresponding dress-code and lo, here were the regulation distressed jackets and fastidiously spiked mohican coiffs amongst the curious students of social history.
There’s still a morbid fascination in this tirade of hubris, and a reminder that even if our seats at the tables of power are still pretty vacant, we don’t care.




A year ago today I was into my seventh week post-surgery.
One way or another I’d survived one era of uncertainties, which had included three postponements of the operation, including one near-miss that found me awake in the ward the morning after pre-op sedation and the news that an emergency admission had taken precedence, each one bringing a further opportunity to reflect on the possibility that there wouldn’t be a post-op opportunity to contrast and compare.
I’d been told that the operation routinely leaves ‘a degree of cognitive deficit, usually insignificant in a week or so’ and so I took Conceptual Issues In Psychology to read for the exercise and a book of Telegraph crosswords. I kind of hoped that the activity would speed the brain in remapping itself. I was feeling for mental bruises and fractures.
I’d already spent a year of odd body-sensations which had in fact turned out to be Significant shudders.
Post-op there were so many competing arpeggios of sensation it was difficult to sort out those due to meds from those you might reasonably expect after seven hours of extreme internal body-modification achieved by cleaving the ribcage and wiring it together again.
The sight of my shaved chest and spiky waxed-thread stitches giftwrapping the bright scar from clavicle to omphalus never ceased to surprise me: it was me. It was a reminder that under there, the x’s marked the site of finer stitching, still healing around a valve that was now keeping me alive so long as I had access to enough anticoagulant to reduce the risk that the industrious little prosthetic might whip up stray clots of untreated full-fat blood.
The new metronome tick in the chest encourages you to relax and see how slow you can make the resting beat, the click-track of tranquility. Similarly you’re more alert to little impromptu snare-drum paradiddles and needless bebop improvisations with too much pedal on the bass.
There’re a few days on days of morphine, waking periods with a plastic straw firing oxygen into your nostrils. The trolley rolls through with its cargo of little pills in little plastic cups for you, and you, and you… you don’t ask.
It had been ten weeks in no-man’s land between the level-toned information from the consultant that ‘a surgical intervention will be necessary’ and the return to consciousness in Intensive Care. Now I wanted to get onto the bit of the story about how quickly I recovered. I idly fiddled with the stitches, encouraging them to drop out if they wanted to, like a child playing with loose milk-teeth.
Back at home, I slept on the downstairs sofa, in the early days still thinking of what would be happening on the ward, as you do on the first days back from a holiday. The shock of surfacing from sleep to hear silence save for a swash of a passing car outside – no monitor-beeps or groans or murmured bedside consultations along the corridor of beds – was enough to cause momentary panic. No-one was waiting beside the sofa-bed to take a blood-sample: ‘you’ll just feel a sharp scratch’… I grew blasé about needles, even about the students who needed time and a couple of shots with the harpoon to find the vein. The tiny sting of the needle was one sensation you could rely on, no ambiguity or hidden threat in a good cannula puncture.
At home you just wake to the empty room and the ticking.
By the end of  January I felt confident enough that the stairs weren’t a test of will and that my sleep-patterns had settled enough that I’d probably be able to sleep through the night in bed, another little victory for normality. Apparently my breathing was enough to result in ‘not a wink of sleep’, so that experiment was abandoned.
I’d prided myself on not being a doc-botherer and now i had a medical regime, a repeat prescription and daily schedule for drugs with specifically-targeted effects and named like stern pharmaceutical gods, hybrids of Olympian conceptual lucidity and Norse refusal to take no for an answer.
This return to a nostalgic theme was prompted by a drive to collect another carload of books and LP’s from the garage where they’ve squatted for about a year. A whole run of Punch with my illustrations, presumed lost, turned up. Again I wonder how I shifted all this stuff to various places, in a little over two weeks. It’s a bit of a lug now, one carload at a time, weeks and sometimes months apart.
The date of the solicitor’s letter requiring that I vacate the house I’d returned to in 21 days was dated 21-2-10, so I opened it the next day with one day down and the clock running.
I’d recently been placing a hand on my chest if I coughed or sneezed, advised to minimise strain on the sutures. It was the least I could do to acknowledge those hours of heroic surgery. Now I was loading crates of belongings and lifting boxes of books from the garage which had never qualified for residency in the house. The next three weeks were a daily round of removals by the carload, to be stacked in various vacant garage-spaces until I found somewhere to remove them to again.
My mantra for the day was my old hill-climbing standby ‘Each step you take is one less step to take’. The beta-blockers which had been a pharmaceutical manyana, the sedative of motivation, probably helped keep me in the mechanical moment. At night they probably kept me in the tiny circular thought-patterns that kept proper sleep at bay. I awoke to climb back on the carousel of flogged horses, reasoning that a period of unconsciousness must have occurred.
I’d found myself unexpectedly not-dead a couple of times in the past year; maybe I was just running ahead of the tide and there were occasions when sudden discomfort under the ribs, migrainey auras in the field of vision, faint patches and pauses for breath only prompted an autistic observation that oh, so maybe this is how it will happen. Boof! Out like a light, which would be preferable to waking in another hospital ward trying to explain to the consultants why I thought I knew better than to listen to their advice to give it 3-6 months before a ‘staged return to work’.
I got myself back to work in March because with my savings all but gone I’d need the money for rent somewhere. At a local school my classes were in a pair of huts in the car-park, which involved a climb up a short ramp to the main buildings and a conscious tactics to disguise the thumping heart and shortness of breath this caused.
The other mantra for that time was ‘one day this will be an episode’ – the news today will be the movies for tomorrow – and here I am writing about it. At some point I shall look back at this post as part of an episode.


February 10, 2011

9-2-11 How To Talk Foople

9-2-11 Fixture Night

‘First off tonight, that clash between City and Town competing in the first leg of the League Cup Challenge Trophy, and with me to look back over the highlights, as usual, Brian Brawn and Bob Brown. Brian, what did you make of City’s performance tonight?’
‘Uh, thanks Barry, well what can you say? I’d say City were very disappointing and I can’t help thinking that they’d say the same, in fact ‘disappointing’ is a bit of an understatement.’
‘To be honest Barry, there’s nothing to say. I’d say that ‘disappointing’ is an understatement judging by tonight’s peformance. It was more than disappointing and it points up what I’ve always said about the weaknesses in City’s game.’
‘That’s right, I can’t help but agree with you there and I was just thinking back to what Reg Pastie used to say when I was playing for United in the run-up to the Champions’ Cup: he said, the secret to winning the game is, in a nutshell – goals.’
‘Aye, I have nothing to add to that. You’ve got to score goals and that’s what City didn’t do tonight. That says it all, doesn’t it? They didn’t score a goal and that makes all the difference in a game like this, against another team who, let’s face it, scored goals.’
‘At the end of the day, it’s a game of winners and losers and in my experience if you’re playing a team like Town who score goals, and, y’know… like it or not, Barry, they did score goals, you can’t expect to be the winners.’
‘In fairness Brian, there are those who’d say that in the final analysis, City played the better game.’
‘Oh aye, you can’t take that away from them. In terms of passing the ball and what I call ‘playing in the right direction’ it was everything we’ve come to expect from them, but, uh, it has to be said and I’m sure you’ll have to agree, it just wasn’t enough on the night.’
‘Well let’s just look back at some of those occasions when City failed to score those goals that could have made such a difference to the result… here we are just 11 minutes into the first half and Bloke makes a run, sells a beautiful dummy to Chapman, penetrates Town’s defence and… there it is, could’ve been one-nil right there but that ball rattles the nearside post and… right into the keeper’s hands. Gordon Chubb there, ha ha, remonstrating with the defenders. ‘Where were you?’ he says…’
‘You have to ask, in fairness, where were they? If we look at that again, there’s Meesely at the edge of the box and well, I don’t know what Cheeseley was thinking of, his positioning there is … well, what can you say? That should’ve been a goal.’
‘A missed opportunity I think. Now here’s that chance on the 28 minute mark, Town really putting the pressure on City here, Doremi on loan from Napoli Atletico, very stylish player, a bit of an inknown quantity but proving himself here as he swerves around the City backfield and it looks like he’s on target for Town’s third goal, goes to shoot and… Bloke again, snatches that ball, a long pass to Dripmarsh, Dripmarsh to Flange, Flange centres, Neaps there to take it, beautiful cannon, ricochets off Cheesely and… you can hear the City fans’ dismay there as the ball lofts into the stand. Cheesely maybe hoping to redeem himself after that first sortie, getting medical attention. City players clustering around there, ready for the corner, taken by Dimpson.’
‘… and as we’ve already seen, that corner kick deflected by Flumes, heads it away right to Doremi’s strong right foot; crosses it to Whingely, Whingely nips it to Farquarson-Cholmondeley and away they go to score that third goal in the first half.’
‘Town dominating the midfield, Ron McCreech there urging them on from the bench; vindication I think for that unusual 2-5-3-1 formation that’s paid dividends in the past. Town striker Hidalgo Vertigo takes a chance, a long curving ball over the heads of the City defence, Blotley gets a hand to it, but it’s too little too late and… back of the net!’
‘And that’s what makes the difference in a game like this. Town score goals, City make chances but consistently fail to follow through. If they’d just scored some goals this would’ve been a very different result.’
‘Join us after the break for highlights of play from the United/ Spoons clash in the European Champions Shield Trophy Cup and more analysis from Brian and Bob here…’


February 6, 2011

5-2-11 A pile of quinces

5-2-11 A Pile Of Quinces

Thanks to Bill Bailey for this useful definition: Quince, n.; nearly a coincidence.

I’ve been using this a lot recently, as a series chanciful rediscoveries turned up in the house-move.

I make a reference to Ed Pinsent’s ‘Bird Of Prayer’ comic-story and within 24 hours I find a copy of one of his Windy Wilberforce stories; then Ed pops up in my email, mentioning that the ‘Bird…’ story appeared again in an anthology last year. Today I find a letter from Ed agreeing to write me a story which appeared in ‘Escape’ magazine as Little Systems Of Mercy (the letter’s now stowed in the loft; I think it was 1996).

I mentioned an interview I wrote up with Rabbi Lionel Blue and again within a day I find a brief note thanking me for the article and saying he’d enjoyed it too. I’ve written a fan-letter to say it’s been a happy reminder.

Although I don’t hang around on Facebook these days – gave it a go when I was out of work awaiting surgery, didn’t get as much out of it as many seem to – but had one of those ‘wanna be Friends’ requests from the funny, smart and talented Kate Charlesworth and this afternoon found a reply from her to a letter I’d sent admiring her regular pages in New Scientist.

Also this afternoon I found a buff folder of typewritten short fiction from A.V. James – see 2-2-11: Stairway To Nowhere – which I must let him know in case he’d like it back. There was a time when backing-up documents meant putting a sheet of carbon-paper behind the paper you typed on.

Boxes of sketchbook/ notepads in no particular order. One of them has a list of lyrics to learn for band-nights in Berlin

Werwolves Of London; Back In The USSR, Hey Bulldog and Come Together (these last, two of my favourite Beatles numbers – Chairmen of The Board do a surprisingly good Come Together); Howlin’ For My Darlin’ (I used to affect a raucous Howlin’ Wolf throat-rattler before I learned how to sing a bit); Louie Louie – rasping Motörhead version…

Sellotaped in, a sprig of lavender from Sovano and some porcupine quills gathered on an evening walk in the hills above Pitigliano, Northern Italy, from a working holiday with Hansi Kiefersauer from Honk! studio in his out-of-town apartment.

This note-to-self, 26-5-96, most likely while listening to BBC World Service in Berlin: ‘Now so used to the usage ‘hi-tech’ that hearing the more complete term ‘…a high-technology theme-park’ it took a second or two for me to realise I needn’t be puzzled over the meaning of  ‘a knowledgy theme park’.

I’m so pleased to find I still have my copy of Bernd Ehrig’s ‘Berlin- Impressionen – Informationen’ (Wela-Druck©1974). I couldn’t count the times I passed by ‘the Jewel Box and The Pepper Pot’, the old and new churches at the end of Kurfurstendamm but was at least 18 years too late to see the Kontrakultur Bernd conjures up thus: ‘On the steps of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church the special atmosphere is created by young and lazy people. It is the meeting place of young men with beard or, at least, long hair to the shoulders, hippie ladies in granny’s long dress or in frayed jeans. They discuss, polemise, bottles are passed round, songs accompanied by guitars; they behave foolishly and talk nonsense, some are daydreaming… Noble wedding or baptism companies are reluctantly permitted to pass for the front gate of the church.’

Fifteen years before the Berlin Wall fell, Bernd gives way to a little wistful reflection in ‘Nostalgy – A Slogan?’ : ‘No doubt this term came into fashion – but it designates to the point what is going to be expressed in this chapter. One is for instance overcome with nostalgy for the colourful scene of the weekly market (Wochen-marktes) when entering the spick and span supermarkets. There will also be nostalgy and melancholy, when entering one of the good and old ‘Aunt Emma Shops’ with the little bell ringing and full of smells of sausage and cheese and with the knowledge that the owner will soon be 70 years old, retiring from business and finding no successor. In Berlin there are still sturdy market women and likeable mummies in their groceries or soap shops – but for how long?’

In fairness I should say that my Berlin colleagues were unfailingly patient and kind about my komisch Lego-Deutschsprache, sentences constructed with painful slowness and hit-and-miss accuracy. I am often overcome with nostalgy for that time past.


February 2, 2011

2-2-11 Stairway To Nowhere

2-2-11 Stairway To Nowhere.

Here’s to the stamina and enterprise of writing and self-publishing a memoir. I had this book arrive in the post last year and what with The Vicissitudes, left it awaiting a read for a while, read it in a wallop and then couldn’t find the time or will to write anything.

My connection to the narrative is loose and distant by the time the book pulls the toggle on its outboard motor and  begins its voyage, like Lon Chaney’s launch navigating the subterranean tunnels in Phantom Of The Opera.

I knew this guy Alan Victor James in the early 70’s while i was a semi-detached art student in Birmingham.

Hippies came in several varieties and we fell into that category of back-to-the -land dreamers, into American country music, plaid shirts, English folk and Music Hall, The Whole Earth Catalogue deal, planning for the collapse of the oil-based economy with our plans stashed to build Buckminster-Fuller geodesic domes from recycled material at the centre of our self-sustaining organic smallholdings.

While we waited for The Man to come to grief we read comics, smoked dope whose provenance and effect we compared like wine-buffs, watched old black-and-white movies on afternoon TV and divided the world into the neat classifications ‘weird’, ‘heavy’ and – at least we got the irony here – ‘cosmic’.

I had a Columbus guitar, a janglebox with dreadful action which I fancied had the sonorous boom of John Fahey’s – I still have it though I only discovered a couple of years ago that with a slight Allen-key turn on the neckbrace the action and sound improved significantly. For decades, until I bought a Samick Gibson-copy parlour-guitar, I’d resigned myself to a small repertoire of easy-chord country-blues numbers, thinking that was about my standard.

Al wrote his own songs with tricky lyrics and rapid-fire barre chords, sung in a half-swallowed tenor growl at the kind of folky dives that infested Moseley and Balsall Heath. I knew my place: in the audience.

At that time he looked like Albrecht Durer’s self-portrait, a chin like a bearded chisel and a cascade of hair worn in various states of grooming, rats’ tails to ringlets depending on his last brush with a shampoo-bottle. That he smiled laconically at you from an altitude of 6’7” with the air of a wiry giant who could on a whim place an enormous hand on your skull and lift you out of his way contributed in no small part to his ambient cool.

His buddy and accomplice, Micky Cotterell in contrast came to about my 6’ shoulder height but compensated with the aura of one of those who run on a couple of volts more than the rest of us. His memorable advice to me about traversing the mean streets of Balsall Heath was ‘At my size, anyone who wants to have a go is going to, so I just make a silhouette that says: win or lose, you’re not going to walk away unmarked, pal.’ I believed him; he had a born roadie’s build and demeanour, a tattered Dickensian dandy with a whiplash eyebrow that was enough to subdue fools he didn’t suffer. Gravity played warily in his presence, and you’d see him trotting up backstage stairways, a Marlborough parked in his face, with a speaker cabinet under each arm.

Together they were The Illegal Brothers, a familiar gang-of-two on the scene.

Then in ‘76 came the purging fire of Punk, admirably suited to the Al James guitar-flaying technique, and the attendant embrace of reggae, a new spectrum of rhythmic subtleties he practised with hours of herbally-enhanced close attention to obscure 12” dub mixes that woozed between the stereo speakers for what seemed like a lifetime.

In an odd way those reminded me of Terry Riley’s proto-electronica ‘A Rainbow In Curved Air’ and ‘Persian Surgery Dervishes’ and The Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’ which sounded like excerpts from a churning soundscape that had been going on long before the tapes rolled and were probably still out there somewhere as you listened to the vinyl.

Overnight the straggling hippy had reinvented himself as Luke Sky, borrowed a vanity-case of mascara and gone all New York Dolls. He was fronting a slapped-up reggae outfit calling themselves Fàshiön – Fah-shiern? The imported accents were apparently silent. The French accent grave was stylish, the umlaut was borrowed from Motörhead.

The first 7” single was Steady Eddie Steady, a peculiarly noir number appealing to the eponymous Eddie not to blow his brains out ‘Steady Eddie Steady, is this the only way out? Eddie hold the gun steady.’ I played the grooves grey – that was Big Al driving the Ghost Train.

Before long they’d only gone and got themselves management: Miles Copeland, Stuart Copeland’s Dad, yeah, him out of The Police. They were off to tour the States. Bloody hell.

Now at that point I was so green with envy and constitutionally uncool that I retired even further into the margins, kept my head down and drew comics, but it was as if Al, Luke, Luke Sky(!) had been given the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket to the unbridled Fellini Rock Star On The Road theme-park.

I read the memoir with a growing sense that actually I’d had the good fortune to get a note from home saying I was excused games. I suspect I would’ve shrivelled like the worm in a bottle of tequila.

My idea of decadence was modelled on louche aesthetic fin de siècle flaneurie; touring was evidently a search and enjoy pursuit of wanton excess, the band a small raiding-party of Viking beserkers in Max Factor warpaint.

The effect reading it now is exhausting, a kind of All Riot On The Western Front, long episodes of time anaesthetised rather than killed, punctuated by vivid shell-bursts of micro-celebrity. The music hardly features, the accounts of the gigs sound like a football team playing a succession of away fixtures against auditoria of the baffled and blasé.

What distinguishes Stairway To Nowhere from a lot of rock memoirs is exactly what the title implies; the history isn’t drawn from the winner’s perspective. Name-band stories pass over ‘the early days’ as episodes of local colour, overtures to chart domination, fame and influence. This, as someone once said of the Marquis de Sade’s later writing presents excess as an interminable carousel rather than an elevator.

In a brief road-movie tableau, Al James-as-was glances across a diner to see a small-town college couple – ‘I wonder how they aren’t blinded by the combined glare off their teeth’ – take another booth. ‘So here I am, a new wave dancing bear, a painted frankenpunk, and even though I’m sure I’m on my way to ruling the planet as a megastar, still I’m denied the joy these two perfect specimens enjoy.’

Luke, I hear, is settled in the States now, doing the family thing and still involved in music and writing and eco-activism. The cliché goes that you regret the things you didn’t do more than those you did. I put the book down rather grateful that he did all this stuff so I didn’t have to.

Stairway To Nowhere©2010, Luke James; Brummie Git Press.