Thursday, 24 November 2011

‘The King of Love has died’ … Jackie Leven, Rest in Peace

Quote in title taken (and slightly altered) from Jackie's song, 'Some Ancient Misty Morning')

The Mystery of Love Is Greater Than the Mystery of Death

Larger than life in every way, especially in terms of his immeasurable talent, and a complete one-off, it’s hard to believe that someone who seemed more alive than most of us, and to me indestructible, is dead, this brave, lovely, completely genuine and incredibly gifted man. I felt better about the world just knowing he was in it so this is hard.

Since I found out Jackie was seriously ill, I’ve been unable to listen to more than a line from ‘Universal Blue’ without bursting into tears. I have the live version on the Deep in the Heart of Nowhere CD (quite different from the more uptempo and strangely cheerful studio one, actually a live version has just been added to YouTube) and his voice, so plaintive, goes straight to my heart. Somehow especially poignant and heart-rending in contrast to the light-hearted story that precedes it. Exquisitely melancholic. Now it’s very hard for me to hear his voice, which always had the ability to move me anyway, without sobbing. And who else is going to title a song ‘Young Male Suicide Blessed by Invisible Woman’?

I was introduced to Jackie’s music by a university friend who had all the Doll by Doll albums. Soon, I had them too but the band had already broken up without any success – their idiosyncratic talent out of step with the times as ever, too musically and lyrically accomplished for punk or New Wave and too rough-looking (they looked like a bunch of bruisers spoiling for a fight – you certainly wouldn’t want to mess with them) for an era of pastel suits, frilly shirts and floppy hair, neither a feel-good band in the 80s mould nor a pointlessly rebellious ‘what have you got?’ punk outfit. Way too real for people who wanted to escape, they pondered deeper questions with wit, eloquence and intelligence. From the anthemic ‘Main Travelled Roads' to the wild and thrilling ‘Gypsy Blood’, Jackie had this unerring ability to discern beauty in desolation and desolation in beauty, not to mention the elegiac in the everyday and the mythic in the moment (‘Some Ancient Misty Morning’), and express this in song while remaining something of an incurable romantic – ‘I do believe that lovers on the harbour wall were meant to be’ (‘Cool Skies’), I always imagined to refer to graffitied names on the wall but maybe there were real lovers, and ‘While the neon universe was winking to an end, And taxi drivers yawned from Earl’s Court to the Strand’, told me of a London I had yet to visit. Doll by Doll sounded as dangerous as they looked: ‘The Human Face’ – ‘A watched clock never moves, they said, so he never watched the clock. The only time he saw the hands, they were rushing like a torrent round a rock’ describes the song’s own trajectory, one minute soft, slow, tender, the next out of control, gathering momentum, an essay in intensity. It fit with my college life, ‘Angst, angst and more angst’ as a friend put it at the time. We were all so post-Joy Division (in fact, let's face it, post-'Blue Monday') although yet to experience any actual pain or sorrow. At the time, I wrote a poem that included the line ‘I'm in love with Jackie Leven’s voice’. I still am.

Then, when I was working in London, just as Jackie resurfaced, I had the privilege of seeing the phenomenon that was Leven live (almost invariably in shorts, him not me), many times, dragging friends and colleagues with me, to the Borderline, to the 12 Bar. All were impressed. I didn’t know at the time that some of the songs that I requested from Doll by Doll days, were, since the mugging, out of his new vocal range, ‘Main Travelled Roads’, ‘The Fountain Is Red’, etc. The studio albums are amazing but I will always treasure my memories of the gigs, which are where Jackie really shone – his magnificent, awe-inspiring voice, every emotion amplified, invested with an unbelievable vehemence, his skill as a raconteur and those incredibly funny stories. Though solo, you always felt that there was more than one person on stage, given Jackie’s skill on the guitar, – why just use the strings when you have a whole guitar? He was invariably entertaining, enthralling, entrancing. In a way, he was suited to these venues, because a Jackie gig was always a special and an intimate experience, where he would converse and interact with the crowd.

I hate to talk of Jackie in the past tense. He meant a lot to me. I did a fair amount of evangelising on behalf of him and his music. Part of me did relish the fact that he was little known but a bigger part wanted to share him with everyone.

I had some contact with him, mainly by fax (I was at work and too in awe to ring him up), persuading him to let Grant Hart play the CORE benefit show, then persuading Grant Hart to play the benefit (he was on a budget and was only paid £25 for expenses, while remarking to me that in 1987 he was paid $25,000 for one show although it was to be divided with the other members of Husker Du). Also convinced Jackie to play a gig for Bromley Acoustic Music Club, of which I wasn’t even a member, but it meant I got to see another Jackie gig. And so, my brief but exciting career as a music promoter, ended. I had a real job but this was so much more fun. I still dabble occasionally although some might call it interfering.

Although it’s lovely to read so many glowing tributes in the papers, it’s a shame they never devoted this many column inches to him while he was hale and hearty and at the height of his powers.

So, we’ve got the music and we’ve got the memories. And both are glorious. At the moment, of course, the sadness is overwhelming. Much has been written about the fact that Jackie never received the acclaim he deserved. It seemed that he would ever be on the cusp of making it but be destined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, talked up one minute and forgotten the next but I think we should all concentrate on the dedication and loyalty of the fans that he has got, evident in the posts on Yahoo and Facebook. Maybe he was just too great to be appreciated by the hordes. There are a lot of undiscerning people out there. With Jackie, you either get it or you don’t and once you do, you’re hooked. He reels you in with those haunting melodies, the poetry of his lyrics and the breadth of their reach, his heart and soul, the power and the majesty of his voice and his extraordinary gift for telling stories, either spoken or sung. He was never less than captivating.

That voice – instantly recognisable, unique – I would know it anywhere. Unparalleled. Flawless. There are no words to describe it so I’ll give up right now. It will echo forever in our minds and hearts.

We did love you, Jackie and we always will. As Jackie says at the end of this live version of ‘Exit Wound’– God bless us all. We’ll see you somewhere else.

[I’m sure Jackie would have been amused by the obituary that eulogises Doll by Doll’s Gypsy Heart. Mmm. Like that famous Bruce Springsteen album, The Stream. How can you ever have listened to the track and not know it’s Gypsy Blood, especially as in inimitable Jackie fashion, the word ‘blood’ is extended to seventeen syllables in each chorus? As I wrote in my comment: 'Shades of Marge, the New York plugger, anyone?']

Here’s a review I wrote in 1994

Jackie Leven / The Borderline 29 July 1994
Jackie still has a voice that quietens crowds in seconds – massive, majestic, effortlessly soaring – he's a one-man choir, whether playing to a packed house at the Borderline where tonight we could sample his own whisky, Leven's Lament (bemused businessmen from the restaurant above are totally won over, by Jackie, not the whisky) or, barefoot and relaxed, to a few people sitting politely at tables in a church crypt in Clerkenwell where alcohol and cigarettes are prohibited.

The songs range from hard, rocky numbers like ‘Cabin Fever’* and a frenetic version of ‘Sacred Bond’ to the melancholy triumph of ‘Snow in Central Park’ and my particular favourite, ‘Call Mother’. "Call mother a lonely field." What does it mean? Somehow when he sings, it all makes sense. I hope you’re right, Jackie.**

Call it what you will - Celtic rock, folk, whatever, Jackie and the band give it their all. Tone, thanks for telling me about Doll by Doll all those years ago.

* Can't find this song anywhere. Have I got the title wrong?

** ‘Everybody gets the chance to fall in love again’ (‘Natural’)

Other Leven blogs can be found at The King of Love Has Died Exit Wound and I Never Saw the Movie and Jackie Leven and Adventures in Levenland.

I mention Jackie in my first blog about modern music. Also see bashful's blog.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Dave Davies Satsang Weekend Setlist September 2011

Ok, here’s the setlist from the Satsang Weekend, copied from the band’s one but might not be in order. It was all pretty amazing.

All Day and All of the Night
Where Have All the Good Times Gone
Set Me Free
Tired of Waiting for You
The Lie
See My Friends
Creeping Jean
Rock Siva
Death of a Clown
Too Much on My Mind
Are You Ready, Girl?
Fortis Green
Flowers in the Rain
Remember the Future
Love Me Till the Sun Shines
Rock Me, Rock You
I’m Not Like Everybody Else
Living on a Thin Line
This Man He Weeps Tonight
You Really Got Me
Get Back in the Line

Next night
More or less the same but with
Hare Krishna
One Day at a Time
A snatch of Last of the Steam-Powered Trains
Party Line
Sea of Heartbreak

The band, apart from the drummer, Frank Rawle, who came from Barnstaple, had travelled from LA and were Jonathan Lea (rhythm guitar - he can also be seen in the version of The Lie from the World Trade Center, linked above, amusing to watch Dave try to control his lyric folder, luckily there was no breeze to contend with on the weekend), David Nolte (bass), Kristi Callan (backing vocals). They were a great support to Dave and all worked really well together.

Question: Why is the song called Rock Me, Rock You when Dave always sings ‘Rock You, Rock Me’? He introduces this 2003 live version as Rock You, Rock Me. Beautifully tender.

Corrections: Do let me know if you were there and remember the setlist differently.

My next blog will be about the great Jackie Leven. I can't believe he's gone.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Dave Davies Breaks My Heart (Again): Satsang 1

So we did it. Went on the Satsang Weekend. It took a huge leap of faith. Like the jump that Robert Redford and Paul Newman make in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Well maybe not as risky as that. It was billed as the opportunity of a lifetime but I’m the sort of person who, when opportunity knocks at the door, crouches down behind the sofa until it goes away again. At one point during the preliminaries, I thought I was joining the FBI or something; the payment method that my bank told me was unsafe and would cost me £30 (luckily the bank proposed an alternative that worked), the security, the ID laminates, the whole clandestine nature of the affair seemed so outlandish but in a way, this somehow only served to make the prospect more intriguing. It was all so Secret Squirrel. Although I did wonder what might be coming next: Fingerprints? Retinal scans? The absolute secrecy, need-to-knowness was possibly a little excessive considering that, if I’d told my friends that I was going to a satsang weekend at Dave Davies’s house, they wouldn’t have said, ‘Oh my God, you know where Dave Davies lives?’, they would have asked ‘Who’s Dave Davies?’ and possibly, ‘What’s satsang?’ I did wonder what sort of people had been invited to Dave and Kate’s before that they felt the need to make us sign a declaration that we would abide by a daunting list of ‘terms and conditions’ and just as it was nerve-wracking for us to put our trust in people we had never met, I kept thinking it can't be easy to invite all these strangers, possibly stalkers, to your house so it was probably even more nerve-wracking for them. Still, it was a little ironic given Dave’s rep as a rule-breaker. When I told my friends I didn’t know where I was going and wasn’t allowed to know, they were sure I would be inducted into a cult and they would have to break me out and then spend a long time deprogramming me. Still, I’d never been in a cult before so was willing to take my chances. After all, you only live once. My worry was that it all seemed like it might be a bit ‘Abandon cynicism, all ye who enter here’, which is a hard thing for me to do. With the added pressure of breathing and meditation, two things I don’t excel at.

So what was it like? Although it wasn’t exactly what we were promised or what we expected, because of Dave, who and how he is, it was so much more. He didn’t only open his house to us; he opened his heart and soul. He’s a sweetheart; totally unguarded, so open that he releases some conduit of emotion in me so that I spend much of the weekend in tears. This is partly because of bad news that I had before I went away but it’s something more. Dave really touches me and affects me somehow so that I feel what he’s feeling, so that each time he cries or his voice breaks, I’m already in tears but I can't know what he’s thinking about. It’s very strange. At one point he talks about being in love – I think he must imagine I’m in the middle of or at the end of a tragic love affair because I keep bursting into tears. I feel there’s some emotional connection, elemental and beyond words, and maybe only momentary. But Dave   probably has this effect on many people and has learnt to go with it.

I’ve never cried so much or been hugged so much in my whole life although my life has not been high on the hugs front anyway. It’s cathartic. The other members of the group are really supportive and kind and I hope that many of us will keep in touch. There is healing from the professionals Dave has enlisted but it’s therapeutic just to be in the group, to accept its and Dave’s kindness.

It’s interesting to hear some of Dave’s ideas, reassuringly eclectic, especially for someone like me, a Brideshead Revisited type of Catholic, more interested in the superstitious, personality-based side of religion, whose own brand of beliefs is a bit like a Woolworth’s pick and mix, with bits of everything all jumbled up, there’s nothing like variety, my ultimate faith lying in St Anthony, and Dave’s credo, which is based on love, should be our ideal although some things are a little harder to accept (like dolphins coming from another planet). Having recently had what faith I had shaken by an event that belies any concept of karma (and not for the first time), it was surprisingly moving to be with people who still believed in something, who could conceive that their positive energy could affect the universe, that we could pool our spiritual resources and make a difference. Dave is very anti intermediaries (priests and so on) but he can be my intermediary any day. Dave notwithstanding though, a couple of days after the weekend, I hedged my bets and bought medals of the saints from Buckfast Abbey and celebrated the Equinox at some stone rows on Dartmoor with a Druidess.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not quite ready to canonize Dave yet because I just read an interview with Ray where the interviewer was ‘kind’ enough to point out all the cruel things that Dave had recently said about him. Ray said that he wouldn’t read the article because it would only upset him. It reminds me of my sister and I. I once said that she has empathy for every living creature except me. I know circumspection’s not in your nature but have a heart, babe. He may be all those things but if you prick him, doth he not bleed?

And am I the only one who was a bit disappointed that the talking stick never said anything?

But, let’s be honest here. I didn’t even know what satsang was so I’m not really here for that even though it was intriguing and I found it really affected me. (Or was it just Dave?) Primarily, I’m here for the music.

The gigs in the evening are amazing and the band are great. More than intimate – we’re practically standing on top of them. Dave might forget the words or even the chords occasionally but the emotion and the passion and the humour shine through any minor restarts. He really gives of himself when he performs. He might have managed to get through ‘Flowers in the Rain’ the second night without crying but I didn’t and L* knew I wouldn’t. It gets me every time. I don't think about myself – it’s imagining what he’s feeling that upsets me so much. Empathy. Kurt Cobain was right about that. Still, Dave manages to slip easily between joking and intensity.

But we danced, we sang along, we had a blast. As a relatively new fan, it was the first time I had heard ‘Are You Ready, Girl?’, ‘Rock You , Rock Me’, ‘The Lie’ and ‘Get Back in the Line’. Wow. How lucky am I?

It was incredibly uplifting to hear Dave sing ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’, a pivotal track for me and a major factor in the reasons for me being here at all, and have everyone sing along. I could forget my disappointment in karma and experience unadulterated joy. And he danced with me! Well, sort of.

So many things that I wish I’d asked or said, like ‘Dave. Did you ever know all the words to ‘Village Green Preservation Society'?’

And maybe next time I’ll get up the courage to request some songs. I was dying to hear ‘Run’, ‘Mindless Child of Motherhood’, ‘Lost in Your Arms’, ‘Love Gets You’, but angsted too long over whether there was some particular reason he didn’t play them any more.

Despite everything, the expense and the extreme secrecy, I ask a friend if she’d do it again and she says ‘In a heartbeat’ and I would too. Of course it’s Dave that does it; he still has it, whatever it is. He really touches me. Ok, he looks older but he has that indefinable something; you can see and hear the sixteen-year-old he was in him still, that love of life. Great to see him so well recovered from his stroke. If he toured, wouldn’t we all go? Looking forward to hearing the new album.

Dave, Don’t Stop Breaking My Heart.

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Kinks – Progress of an Obsession: Part II

So now some thoughts as I journey into the Kinks back catalogue as well as wander through some more up-to-date songs from the Davies brothers. Please forgive the zeal of the newly converted.

First of all I think there are two reasons why songs I didn’t think I knew seem so familiar to me. One is that they have that uncanny ability to infiltrate my consciousness and take up residence there, even if I’ve only heard them once. Another is that there are songs by different artists, which contain sometimes very small snippets of melodies from Kinks songs. But how is anybody supposed to write songs when the Davies brothers have written them all already? Here are some examples that I feel owe a little debt to the Kinks. Let me know if you agree or can think of more.

99 Red Balloons – Nena / Better Things
Mulder and Scully – Catatonia / Get Back in the Line
Hello, I Love You – The Doors / All Night and All of the Day
Lorraine Parade – Danny Wilson / Do You Remember Walter?

I won't be listing which song is written by which brother. You probably already know. The majority of Kinks songs were written by Ray but Dave’s songs are great favourites of mine too. Dave’s songs are emotional (like his personality) and tend to bypass my head and go straight for my heart; Ray’s are more sentimental, more observational but just as touching. Lucky for me I’m partial to both.

I’m Not Like Everybody Else
Listening to this song I didn’t know – performed late in their career, the 90s, with Ray on lead vocals but actually a really early release, the B-side of Sunny Afternoon, 1964 (and originally sung by Dave) – it sounds totally contemporaneous with the 90s and is quite aggressive, bitter, defiant and triumphant. Challenging, even threatening, and Dave’s guitar is amazing. Glorious to hear the crowd joining in. The original version is much lighter and less antagonistic, less guitar-heavy. Now both brothers sing the rocked-up version brilliantly. That’s the thing though – there are so many songs, many of which were only demos or B-sides and more or less thrown away and yet they’re tons better than anything in the charts today. I mean This Man He Weeps Tonight, Well-Respected Man – how can you better that?

Get Back in the Line
Several nights running I’ve had a refrain in my head and even though I’ve listened to loads of songs throughout the day, this hook stays with me, plaintive and melancholic and such a great tune, proving itself unforgettable. My sister eventually identifies it as Get Back in the Line. And it’s not even the chorus but the verse. Oh my God, what a song. Every day I wake up singing a different Kinks song. It’s bliss.

After seeing the video, you can understand why the band could forgive Dave later for spitting in their faces (as Ray claims). He’s impossibly sweet, impetuously grabbing Pete Quaife’s hand. All of them look like they’re having such a great time. So incredibly young and full of happiness. Why couldn’t it stay like this?

Waterloo Sunset
Can't add too much to what’s already been said by Pete Townshend and his ilk. The lilting melancholy melody seems to ebb and flow to the gentle rhythm of the river. An elegy for London.

The Village Green Preservation Society
A title that I can’t imagine grabbed anyone in the 60s but a characteristically and curiously charming song. Footage is from some BBC show from the 70s I think. (Why doesn’t the BBC show all of them, instead of tiny snippets on other programmes?) You can see that Dave is waiting for Ray to start and sometimes finish the line because he’s forgotten the words and there really are a lot of words. I can't imagine that Dave ever knew all of them, particularly not the ‘consortium’ line. But you’ve got to love someone who can rhyme vernacular with Dracula in a song. Or ‘regatta’ with ‘get at her’. Sublime.

Picture Book and Mr Pleasant
The counterpoint between the two of them really makes the songs. Dave forever smiling and Ray occasionally granting a smile to Dave. Their voices blend and echo each other so perfectly. The video for the latter is so affecting. They actually look like they like each other. Could Dave *be* any cuter? Can he see himself in a mirror (straightening his hat, fixing his hair)? Could anyone else carry off that ridiculous hat with such aplomb and charm? I like the way he gives the nod to the trombonist to come on, very pantomime. Unbearably lovely.

Another song that rings a faint bell. 1973 concert. Ray’s eyes so beautiful when he finally opens them. He goes from fey and affected to impassioned in a heartbeat. God, the boy can sing. By now, he’s grown into his looks and has let his hair get long – it’s a lovely incarnation. He looks ghostly - sweaty and preternaturally pale.

Flowers in the Rain
Dave, Dave, Dave – stop it. You’re making me cry. Beautiful, heartbreaking, unbelievably touching. Lovely melody, heartfelt delivery.

Working Man’s Café
Ray dedicates the middle eight to Dave. I speculate that Ray is always trying to communicate with Dave through songs or asides at concerts, that many of his songs have lyrics about Dave (and himself, all mixed up). Here it’s:

I thought I knew you then but will I know you now?
There's gotta be a place for us to meet
I'll call you when I've found it
I only hope that life has made us a little more grounded

But other examples are Dandy, Better Things (some verses seem to be about Dave, others about Ray), Dedicated Follower of Fashion, Rock and Roll Fantasy (surely about them?), All Night Stand, Two Sisters, Heart of Gold (about the two of them), Long Way from Home and possibly He’s Evil. Even One More Time, I wonder about - ostensibly about a former lover but ...

Any more you can think of?

After a very short while, the songs that I initially didn’t like are suddenly favourites:

Thought this was too histrionic, too Jacques Brel, too self-indulgent, with Ray melodramatically hamming it up. Now I adore it, particularly the 77 live version from the Rainbow. What a performance! Magnificent hair toss at 4.36ish.

First I’m amazed that these kinds of videos (or promos as they used to call them) exist as I thought the concept of song videos didn’t get going till the 1980s. I have to comment on YouTube: Boys – you know it’s wrong to make smoking look so cool.
I’d sort of dismissed this as a silly novelty record. It isn’t at all, despite Ray singing about equality in a non-ironic faux Jamaican accent. And some of the ideas are topical today. But the whole thing is just a joy. It makes you happy. Of course promos in those days seem to consist of people walking around in parks, all very innocent and sweet. Adorable.

In interviews, Ray makes it seem like he knows what’s going on in Dave’s life but he’s usually about three years out of date. That might even be deliberate: a passive aggressive stance. To me, watching them together playing or in interviews, it seems that they fall into roles and Dave will always be the younger, less responsible brother. As Ray says at the end of a song in 1977 – he has to play the wicked headmaster as usual. It’s inevitable but it seems as if neither of them actually likes these roles they’re destined to play.

Ray can only be nice about Dave when Dave’s not there. Then he’ll talk about his incredible right hand or say he was the angst and energy of the band. Otherwise, when they're together, he comes across as dismissive and critical, as if he’s waiting for Dave to mess up and embarrass them both. Sometimes Dave is happy to oblige, do what's expected. Then if Dave gets to say something, joking about not being able to get a word in edgewise, Ray kills him with a glance. But in the Imaginary Man documentary, Ray says of the band, ‘I miss them more than they could possibly know. I miss them. They probably think I don’t but I think about them a lot.’ They obviously still care about each other so perhaps there's still hope for what we daren't dream of.

Now, after more exposure to the music (God, I have a lot of to catch up on and it’s going to be such fun), my new favourite tracks are Rock Me, Rock You (so beautiful), Get Back in the Line (as mentioned previously) and All Night Stand.

Next time: My thoughts on the Dave Davies Satsang Weekend.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Birth of an Obsession – The Kinks

Amazing how your life can change almost overnight. Before and after the Kinks. Of course, for Ray Davies, there’s probably a B.D. (Before Dave) and an A.D (After Dave). And it all hangs on my marking the Kinks programmes on BBC4 in the TV guide (Kinkdom Kome and Imaginary Man), thinking they might be interesting, wanting really a chance to hear ‘Celluloid Heroes’ again, a song that moved me long ago. Must have listened to it on a little transistor. Perhaps because of the poor reception, I always thought the line about Marilyn was ‘Should have been made of vinyl steel [rather than ‘iron or steel’] but she was only made of flesh and blood’. Can anyone tell me why these verses are not in later live versions of the song? But it was really only chance that I watched any of this retrospective. So completely random and now I’m so glad that I did. It seems that I was just waiting around for something to obsess about.

I don't know if it’s good or bad the way I am. At any point I can develop an obsessive interest in something. Obviously I liked them in the past. But only a little. Particular songs I remember hearing on oldies stations are ‘Celluloid Heroes’, ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘Waterloo Sunset’, ‘Lola’, ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’. Certain songs are very familiar to me when I hear them again – ‘Dead-End Street’, ‘Autumn Almanac’, ‘Set Me Free’, which I don’t think I realised was the Kinks but probably thought was the Beatles, and ‘Come Dancing’ but I never truly appreciated their genius till now. Plus in the old days, it wasn’t only the fact that I didn’t have the means to indulge an interest in something and I didn’t – I had no power at all, let alone purchasing power. In those days, I was acted upon and not acting because of the way I’d been brought up or maybe simply because I was a child. But the means itself didn’t even exist.

Now of course there’s youtube, which has enabled me to rediscover the Kinks, gradually, live and on record, at different stages in their career. I always thought of them as whimsical and witty, not quite serious but they’re so much more than this. Ray Davies, observing and commenting on the world around him, with accuracy, wry humour, irony and affection, long before Damon and Jarvis. Now I can't believe how much time I’ve spent in the last week just watching or listening to the Kinks, wondering about them, well, the brothers mainly and their fascinating relationship. It’s total immersion. And I wonder: is it only me that gets like this? Or do the Kinks do this to everyone who takes the time to really listen? I actually feel lucky to care so much about something, and that there is something special enough to involve me so completely. The music is paramount but let’s face it, the Davies brothers are intriguing and charismatic, in performance captivating, which doesn’t hurt. Now, when I’m working (so fortunate to work from home), I have to have a ‘Kinks break’ every half hour or so. After more than an hour, I start Jonesing for a song. The songs are something else.

So begins the voyage of discovery, a magical mystery tour entirely dependent on the efforts other music fans have made to download tracks (famous, rare, from obscure foreign TV shows, live, studio, audio only) and interviews onto the net. Thank you to everyone. Now the songs that we listen to most are not the ones we knew although all those songs are glorious but earlier or later ones, like ‘Tell Me Now So I’ll Know’, a perfect jewel of a 60s pop ballad, the angst-ridden ‘This Man He Weeps Tonight’, the Dylanesque ‘God’s Children’, the later, rocked-up version of ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’, with either brother singing lead or the melancholic anthem, 'Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy'. Not to mention the solo material – ‘Imaginary Man’, 'Flowers in the Rain'; I could go on but this is only meant to be an introduction.

And so it begins. From a stray spark on BBC4, a fire has been lit. (Sorry – I seem to have gone all Lord of the Rings). The fuel is inexhaustible with more interviews and songs coming online every day. At the moment, it feels like an eternal flame but I am anxious that, several ebay and Amazon purchases down the line, it will sputter and go out. Is it merely an infatuation or the real thing? Oh, who cares? At least I feel enthusiastic about something. As those other warring brothers might put it: ‘You gotta roll with it.’

More later.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Music Centre Nostalgia

When we were kids, our family didn’t have a stereo, Dad had a Music Centre. Yes I think it had capital letters in our minds. We always used its full title. It was made by Hitachi, a make Dad has remained faithful to ever since. Like Schreiber for furniture. Somehow he came to the realisation and belief that this was the apex of quality and he’s never faltered from this faith. Nothing else will do. He still tries to get us to buy Schreiber today.

Anyway the Music Centre had a turntable, radio and single cassette deck. Much was made of the stylus that we believed was a diamond. If so, it was the only diamond in our house. The Music Centre had a smoked-glass-effect lid. There were lots of dials and switches whereby you could alter what came out of the speakers and increase the treble or bass plus the displays were backlit, adding more drama. It looked very grand, as fascinating to us as the control panel of an aeroplane or the dashboard of a car, with five knobs representing FM frequencies and an array of black push-in buttons for radio, turntable, cassette, mono, stereo etc. When you taped something from a record, you could see the sound levels rise and fall by watching a white needle (one for each speaker) waver back and forth. It was the height of sophistication and class, especially for us as we only had a black-and-white TV and had no idea that the Waltons were redheads or what colour the uniforms in Star Trek were. To us, they were all shades of grey.

Our family has always been a little technologically backward and I only got my first mobile phone Christmas 2010 and still don’t really know how to use it. We’re not quite Luddites but we’re getting there. Or rather not getting there. Still prefer video to DVD and analogue to digital. Dad still has the Music Centre although somewhere along the line, we stopped using its full title and for a while it became just the stereo but the cassette deck no longer works and, as it got older, the right-hand speaker grew temperamental and would sometimes cut out. This could be got round in a couple of ways. If you held the stereo button down firmly for a bit and then let go, it would sometimes bring the speaker back or if you ran your fingers across all the buttons in the direction of the speaker, that might work. It was obviously some loose connection. Now the turntable and radio still work ok but Dad hardly ever uses it, preferring DVDs and CDs although at one stage, he rigged the sound from the TV to come out of the speakers. I still have a great deal of affection for it and the romance of vinyl and the gate-fold sleeve are not lost on me.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

Writing this while listening to Rufus Wainwright’s version of ‘Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered’. Although I think he’s a terribly interesting character, like something out of a fantasy, I have trouble liking his usually rather whiny and drawled delivery but for some reason, the way he slows this down really works and it seems totally heartfelt.

The lyrics seem to encapsulate his personality and personal trajectory in the same way that ‘Yesterday When I Was Young’ (hmm never thought I would like Charles Aznavour) seems to describe Helmut Berger (surely the ‘German film star’ from the Passions song). And when Frank Sinatra sings this, it’s about the girl rather than Frank but not so with Rufus. When he sings, it’s all about Rufus. Definitely.

The thing is every time I hear it, it makes me want to cry because I quite envy Rufus. His experience, his emotions, his lessons, his tireless charm, his mercurial spirit.

The soft confessional tone of ‘I’ve sinned a lot etc’, the self-awareness and arrogance of ‘But I’m like sweet seventeen a lot’, which he is, make my heart melt.

However, just watched Pal Joey and can't quite believe that they made a film, with Frank Sinatra, with these songs that he delivers like no one else (‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘Bewitched’ – God bless Rodgers and Hart) and wasted an opportunity to have him sing them. It’s criminal.

For more on Helmut Berger, see this week's passion: helmut berger as konrad in visconti's conversation piece.

Response to comment + links

Response to comment. Thanks to all who’ve read this so far. My title is a little tongue in cheek and I’m not averse to all the music currently in the charts, it’s just that the majority follows a very uninteresting formula. I like some Ne-Yo, even Usher.

Yes maybe I'm a bit of a curmudgeon. I think it's because I have to listen to all this so-called 'dance' music at our exercise class and it makes me want to beat my head against the wall. The songs are actually unlistenable, just a few words and a sliver of a tune being repeatedly stomped into our brains. Our teacher thinks that if it got to no. 1 then we must all like it but even she is having to stop them halfway through and go on to the next one and she only cares about the number of beats. What I wouldn’t give to hear ‘Red Light Spells Danger’, with real soul, a sense of crescendo and atmosphere as well as a pretty memorable tune. Sometimes the only genuine song she plays is Michael Jackson’s ‘Man in the Mirror’ at the end. And it sounds fantastic I can tell you.

And the thing is the songs you’re talking about were one-hit wonders, they weren’t from people who were regularly getting into the charts. They were widely acknowledged to be rubbish. Yes, there’s always been bad music but it’s never been as successful before nor has there been so much of it with exactly the same content. I still think any generation deserves more than one tiny refrain in each song so I suppose you’re right, I don’t get it.

Here are a few links to music I do like:

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

'And I hate modern music'*

* From 'Sixteen' by the Buzzcocks (Pete Shelley)

Watched a documentary on Ron Sexsmith on BBC4, featuring many respected musicians (Elvis Costello, Steve Earle) singing his praises and appearing as bemused about his relative lack of success as he seems to be himself. I’m of the opinion (as someone with two Ron Sexsmith albums, who’s seen him in concert three times) that he’s had as much success as his talent warrants these days. And I’m not saying that he’s not talented. He is. But I’d venture to suggest that he’s pretty lucky to have had a TV show made about him. There are hordes of as or more accomplished or inspirational singer-songwriters out there who remain similarly unsung and can only dream of the recognition and respect that Ron has had – Jackie Leven, Grant Hart. It’s not that his talent is limited although I do believe that his songwriting was better in the early days. It’s that its appeal is restricted – because of his idiosyncratic delivery and style. I would not want this to change. It’s a mystery to me how someone like Rufus Wainwright (love him, don’t like his voice), surely as much of an acquired taste vocally as Peter Perrett or Gordon Gano, has been so successful but he’s definitely an exception. The rest of these musicians write, make records, tour (often extensively in Germany) and do it without expecting or receiving any acclaim. Usually everything is done on a shoestring, to get the music out there.

Semi-gratuitous pic of Grant Hart
These days the world, the general public, does not recognise the blend of playfulness and erudition in a Grant Hart lyric (on a concept album called The Last Days of Pompeii, referencing Pliny and Herculaneum), or value his effortless, timeless melodies or appreciate the majestic grandeur of Jackie Leven’s voice or respond to the emotion in his delivery. Today if it’s going to be a hit, it has to be about having a party down the club and putting your hands in the air. And preferably the lines are repeated over and over again, for instance, ‘Tonight’s gonna be a good night’ until they make you want to beat your head against the wall.

The charts are full of these so-called songs, which consist of one refrain, sung or played over and over ad infinitum, often this refrain being a sample from an older song (so not even an original tune), usually with all the passion or feeling leached out of it, so it sounds as if it’s been sung by an auto-tuned automaton (again the Black-Eyed Peas are a perfect example with their soulless rendition of ‘Time of My Life’ but I shouldn't leave out the Fugees assassination of 'Killing Me Softly', into which they introduced what the song previously lacked, some idiot going 'One time', 'Two time') and then some extremely childish rap with clichéd rhymes, for example, ‘it’s the girls on the coast, I like the most’, or words repeated ‘I see my friends, friends, friends’ or mingled with uninsightful lyrics, such as JLo’s ‘Let me introduce you to my party in the club’. This nonsense spreads like wildfire. It’s infinitely depressing to me to think that this is all anyone wants to hear: songs with the singer boasting about how sexy they are, how they’re going to rock the club, or repeating their own names, etc. There are occasional exceptions, such as Beyoncé’s ‘Halo’ or 'If I Were a Boy', which has the added distinction of using the future conditional correctly, but they really only serve to prove the rule. Sometimes there’s a snatch of a pleasant-enough tune but the mindless drivel of words that accompanies it is like Chinese water torture it infiltrates everything until it’s ubiquitous and erodes my will to live. Nobody wants to hear real sentiments or ideas any more. Gone are the days of wordsmiths and tunesmiths like Neil Young or Gordon Lightfoot. Or rather gone are the days when writers of such calibre could achieve mainstream recognition while expressing different takes on society or challenging ideas. In the 60s and 70s, it was considered a virtue to write something deep, moving or politically resonant. Now it’s a very difficult climate for intelligence or authenticity. There are musicians out there who are creating worthwhile songs, whose lyrics have integrity, like Citizen Cope or Shakey Graves or Ciaran Lavery, but the market is on the decline.

It’s all to do with the general dumbing down of everything in society. I would go even further and say that society has started to glorify ignorance, that if you use a multisyllabic word, you’re reprimanded for it. Why is that the contestants on American Idol or The X Factor aren't ashamed that they don’t know any music by the Beatles, for instance, claiming that this is because they’re too young? You don’t have to have been born in the same era as Tchaikovsky or Frank Sinatra in order to appreciate their work – I hesitate to say oeuvre – true talent is timeless.

So what we’re left with is lowest-common-denominator music. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-hedonism. I’ve nothing against people having a good time but does it always have to be at a party in da club? Don’t they enjoy anything else? Don’t they want to sing about anything else? Doesn’t a grown man find it demeaning to repeat ‘Weeh ooh’ at various points in a Gwen Stefani chorus? Hasn’t he any self-respect? Or is it only about the profit margin? His qualms disappear on the way to the bank. Bands like the Sugababes used to have some meaning in their lyrics, some lyricism even, in the songs they chose to release (‘Ugly’, ‘Too Lost in You’) and some passion in their delivery. But that’s all changed.

While this trend continues (maybe it began with the soulless and anaemic renditions of great songs by fey-sounding women – Eva Cassidy with ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ or more recently Ellie Goulding’s ‘Your Song’ – and I can only see it expanding as there seems to be an endless appetite for it), the niche market is continually contracting and the Ron Sexsmiths of this world, the songwriters who seamlessly meld a gift for words with melodies that seem organic, so natural that it’s like they always existed as they flow from verse to chorus to bridge, have no place in the mind-numbing round of girls, clubs, parties and electronic samples from previously released songs.

Arthur Conan Doyle
'Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself but talent instantly recognizes genius.' Arthur Conan Doyle