Salinger and Lennon: A fatal distraction

28/01/2010

The death of J.D. – otherwise Jerome David – Salinger is sad in its way: the day that any great artistic figure switches off the light of life reminds us that even the mighty are only passing this way for a short time.

But Salinger had reached a towering age – 91, to be precise – and had spent most of his last six decades reclusively hidden away, obsessively avoiding the glare of interest that his books – certainly his debut novel, The Catcher in the Rye – generated and, in the main, managing to remain a hidden, barely-known personality.

In an era when national or international publicity frequently accompanies the rise of nobodies with no identifiable talent, it seems almost other-worldly that a man who wanted to share his craft and his ideas – at least on paper – should so want to shun the attention of critics, journalists, photographers, biographers, academics and certainly fans.

In fact, such privacy is a relic of another age. You could not seek publication today without some commitment to helping with the promotion of a new title. It would be unthinkable to assume that a text had genuine – or at least potential – value without the willingness of a would-be writer to at least accede to Oprah’s – or Richard and Judy’s, to be more parochial – cooings.

I know there are those who have turned down that huge US show but, along the way, that behaviour has generated its own up-profiling stream: ‘The man or woman who said “no” to Winfrey’, a headline-seizing story in its own curious right. Doubt that Salinger ever thought literature would come to this.

But I do actually resent the writer’s isolationism: humans are social animals who want to converse and debate and chatter and exchange ideas. Why should this individual deny the world some answers to questions – not invasive or scurrilous or voyeuristic questions, but ones that would genuinely interrogate the writer about his art and his talent, his creative approach and attitudes.

I also resent him, perhaps in a quite irrational way, for what his most notorious reader of all did. When Mark Chapman gunned down John Lennon outside the Dakota Hotel in Manhattan in December 1980, he carried with him not only a venomous desire to murder our greatest rock legend but also a copy of Salinger’s most widely-known work.

Had Chapman seen, in the adolescent grievances of the book’s central character Holden Caulfield, a model? Had Chapman cultivated bitterness of such a poisonous kind based on seeds sown by the alienated and isolated literary protagonist whom Salinger launched on the world in 1951.

This may be a thought without plausible justification but I sort of feel that if Salinger hadn’t been such a determined and misanthropic hideaway then, somehow, Chapman might also not have become a gun-toting madman on that terrible night.

Maybe, just maybe, if Salinger had been more open, more forthcoming, had discussed the motivations behind Caulfield, explained the notions behind his fiction to a broader forum, perhaps if he had shared some of his analysis and intelligence instead of shielding himself away for all that time, possibly the disturbed Chapman would have understood the book – and life, too – just that fraction better and his criminal intent would not have expressed itself in that horrifically wasteful manner those 30 years ago.

iMags: An answer to a shrinking print culture?

19/01/2010

The beleaguered land that was once a globe-spanning magazine empire could be about to receive the hypodermic boost that will get it back in the standing position during 2010. Both glossies and indeed newspapers hope they can benefit from the latest product to drop from the fruit-laden Apple tree.

The insider predictions are that the iPad – or tablet, or slate, there are various names being banded about as the pre-launch hype trails the January 27th unveiling – will forge relationships with some of the biggest names in print publishing and the association will lead to an ‘iTunes for magazines’, according to recent Guardian online reports.

Among those multi-media corporations who appear to have signed up to the project are Time Inc, Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith and News Corp, all US-located businesses, though Time Warner does own IPC, home to New Musical Express and Uncut.

With Germany’s Bauer in possession of the other major UK popular music magazine titles – Kerrang!, Q and Mojo – maybe it will be some little while before this America-centred project spreads its wings across the Atlantic and boosts our key rock and pop publications over here, too.

But with promises in the US that the Top 50 best-selling magazines – from Vanity Fair to The New Yorker and even the New York Times apparently allying with the SF computer giant and  joining the roster of would-be iPad publishers – could soon be online to digital readers, it seems unlikely that this bold venture won’t arrive in Europe in some form in the near future, as well.

Okay, so the digital book reader phenomenon has remained largely a Stateside feature, so far, but even that is gradually migrating to Britain with Amazon finally offering its Kindle product to UK customers, though still at a prohibitively high whack of $489 for the larger screen, $259 for the smaller.

Interestingly, while this gizmo is finally importable, the price remains in bucks rather than quids which suggests that the Kindle promotional push here is a somewhat half-hearted affair at present.

The cost of the new iPad is, of course, likely to be the biggest disincentive, at least at first, for potential buyers on this side of the pond. The US Apple launch seems sure to follow the usual pattern: slam a dollar price on the product – $1,000 is the expectation – and then unkindly convert that number to sterling for the Brits – a bit of an ouch at £1,000.

But, as with iPods and iBooks and iPhones, we’ll eventually see a slight fall in the price tag and all be swept along in the Apple cart no doubt. However, if this means that the collapsing news-stand is bolstered by a new raft of readers who buy their mags in the iTunes manner then supporters of print may see this latest tech trick as a vital lifeline to a floundering magazine marketplace.

Yet, to end on a note of warning, this idea may not be an instant saviour to the print industry. NME did launch a free digital version of its mag in early 2009, in league with media distributors John Menzies Digital. The short-term experiment was deemed uneconomic after only a few months so the iPad project may offer glimmers of light but few certainties.

The hope must be that Apple’s unwavering ability to produce irresistible objects of desire will be replicated here and turn young web-heads back to the notion that well-designed, well-written music magazines are actually worth investing in.

PS: Other news from the Jobs labs. Rumours abound that a product aimed at swashbuckling seafarers is in development. Thought to be an aid to pirates, buccaneers and others who may have lost eyes in sea battles, mutinies, aborted boarding raids or one-on-one cutlass duels, the iPatch, believed to aid both 3-D and peripheral vision, could be available as early as the late 15th Century.

The Mapplethorpe effect: Patti, Polaroids and punk

15/01/2010

It would not be outrageous to propose that the two greatest albums of the punk tsunami featured cover images by arguably the most important post-war US photographer. Robert Mapplethorpe was the snapper who wrapped both Patti Smith’s Horses and Television’s Marquee Moon in their distinctive sleeves.

True also that Mapplethorpe was part of that extraordinary, early 1970s, American circle that gathered in downtown Manhattan and whose members became such feted practitioners in a number of diverse artistic fields.

Smith emerged as the the most powerful rock’n’roll woman of all; Sam Shepard won his spurs as the dominating late-century playwright; Tom Verlaine’s guitar became a searing soundtrack within the blazing panoply of CBGBs; and Jim Carroll was regarded as the best of the poets to arise since the Beats of the Fifties.

The fact that Smith was a key romantic axle in this wheel of words, images and music makes the network all the more intriguing. Friend, flatmate, muse, lover or just leader of the pack? Whatever place Patti took in this tangled web of love, art and inspiration, this was hardly an example of a woman taking a ride to the top.

Rather, here was an artist who was going to find her metier in one medium or another – actor, painter, poet, singer, journalist – and her remarkable, neo-Renaissance diversity saw her brush shoulders, and sometimes more, with the creme de la creme of the gutter avant garde.

The great, and the maybe not always so good, clearly raised temperatures beyond the heated confines of the Bowery bar and the Lower East Side club, the SoHo gallery and the off-off-Broadway cabaret.

But those images: that skinny and severe androgyne staring from the monochrome canvas of 1975’s stunning Horses; those manic-eyed beanpoles locked into the camera lens on Marquee Moon, a masterpiece from 1977. Shorn of Mapplethorpe’s snapshots, maybe the history of the new wave would have been a very different one.

In fact – let’s go back and let’s go further. Without the input of Mapplethorpe it is conceivable, just conceivable, that punk may never have happened at all. Crazy claim? Who was it who funded the first awesome record that Patti Smith recorded in 1974? That very same chum, that very same cameraman.

It is hard to know where and how punk would have found its fire, its fury, its frisson of despair without Smith’s ‘Piss Factory’. Against it, the proto-punk anthems of London – Dr Feelgood’s and Eddie and the Hot Rods’ sparky pub rock work-outs – would sound fraught and frenetic, yes, but hardly ready to change music forever.

The title itself breaks taboos but the rolling urgency of the piece is compelling, its terse poetry shining a blinding light on a tale of teen, production-line enslavement, brightened briefly by fleeting references to her musical loves – Stax, James Brown – and then leading to the most exilharating escape since Moses parted the waters. ‘I’m gonna to go to New York City…I’m gonna be a big star’. And she does.

Throw in the debut single’s other side, the re-working of Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’ with its manic mannerisms and references to Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army and we enter a world of bizarre terror – the early days of global terrorism no less – in which the poor little rich girl, daughter of a gargantuan publishing empire, is wielding guns, and for real, on CCTV.

Mapplethorpe, beginning to climb the photography ladder, had a few hundred dollars to underwrite that recording session and, in so many ways, it pushed open a door. In New York, the Velvets were spent and the Dolls had imploded. But that funded 45 transformed Smith from a promising St Mark’s Poetry Project bard into a bonafide rock contender and ready to shake some serious action.

The Verlaine-driven Television debut was a rather different affair – longer tracks, extended solos and a gothic romanticism, thwacking the symbols when compared to Smith’s grittier street rap. With Richard Hell now departed, the band’s trash thrash had been modified, refined somewhat, and there was more virtuosity than you could shake a punk at.

But the eyes have it on the wrapper: four faces that have an alien gleam – shaggy, torn hair-cuts, lean, insect limbs, an unearthly light, suggest a night with the rocking dead rather than the new street corner gods. Louche, loud, jagged music then assaults you, yet played with the crisp attack, the competence and control of a Berklee jazz gang.

Charles Shaar Murray dug Horses like he loved the Stones at their best. Nick Kent praised Marquee Moon as if the Velvets had reformed and resurrected Jimi on axe patrol. Those glowing NME reviews that greeted these slivers of epoch-shaking magnitude woke us – and so many Americans, too – to the next phase in rock’s thrillingly erratic course.

But the Mapplethorpe portraits are as lasting as the musical contents: the amorphous and curious beauty of the woman who would prove that the intense poet and a monstrous backbeat were not mutually exclusive and a fierce quartet who would ensure that Television was literally on the radio, at least in the UK, for a thrilling year or two as the Seventies blazed towards its conclusion.

The man with the Polaroids would do more – plenty more. He would become the pictorial historian of Lower and Mid-Manhattan – capturing Burroughs, Warhol, Grace Jones and many others. Specialise in picture essays on the San Francisco S&M scene. Capture astonishing, no-holds-barred nudes: hunking black models framed in their homo-erotic immodesty. And then dead. Dead at 42. Of AIDS. In 1989.

For British followers of the justifiably mourned Mapplethorpe’s black and white odyssey, a fine selection of his work from several periods – including self-portraits and an alternative take of the Horses shot, too – can be enjoyed at Graves Gallery in Sheffield until March 27th, 2010. But for others: pick up the records once more, stare hard at those powerful images and devour the music all over again.

All Neal: Cassady celebrated in downtown Denver

13/01/2010

Three years ago, I planned a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It was due to take place in my working city of Leeds and in the University’s School of Music where I am based, a commemoration, in words and images, music and performance, of the arrival of this ground-breaking novel.

Among those who were slated to take part was the timeless and tireless Carolyn Cassady, a legendary figure herself in the story of the American Beat writers. But then I revealed that an unreleased movie simply titled Neal Cassady, a dramatic portrait of her husband, was to also form part of the programme.

Carolyn was very far from happy. In fact, she was quite disparaging of the new bio-pic, suggesting that if that screening remained in the schedule, she would have to seriously consider withdrawing from the event. For me, as organiser, the Sword of Damocles was briefly poised over my head.

Whatever the ins and outs of the matter – and, significantly, my event was maddeningly scuppered by a fire that ravaged my office just weeks before the celebration was due – there is no question that Neal Cassady remains a controversial and contested figure in the discourse of Beat history.

The reaction of his long-time partner was indicative that there is certainly no unanimity in the way we should make sense of this mercurial individual who, from his young life on the streets of Denver to his curious death by the tracks of a Mexican railroad, led an existence that was rich in experience, riddled with paradox, concluded in tragedy.

Lothario and tea-head, car-thief and raconteur, faithful friend and unfaithful partner, orphan and father, speed-king and spiritualist, literary inspiration and would-be novelist himself, Cassady is hero and villain, saint and sinner, toiling brakeman and reckless bum.

The fact that his fame – or infamy – stretched across some 20 years in the rise of the post-war cultural revolution and he was a principal player in the theatre of both Beat and hippie, from the late 1940s to the end of the Sixties, made him an iconic figure, a symbol of liberation in a world that was only just wriggling from the straitjacket of social conformity and sexual repression.

Cast as Dean Moriarty in On the Road, Cassady appeared on the page as a fast-talking, jazz-loving, ever-optimistic magician of the roads, a supreme master of the steering wheel, his childlike wonder at the possibilities before them balanced by his rapacious sexual marauding.

By the time the writer Ken Kesey employed him to be the driver of his travelling troupe on the bus dubbed Furthur, the line where the fictional character ended and the actual man began had been largely eroded by the mind-shaking effects of psychedelics and the harsh realities of jail after a set-up drugs bust.

Thus Cassady became a star of the emerging Beat fiction, as Kerouac immortalised him as free-wheeling wanderer and one of Norman Mailer’s ‘white negroes’, and then a hero to the hippies and a fellow traveller in their LSD adventures, episodes recounted by new journalist Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, a book published in 1968, the same year that Neal met his end.

Next month, the city where Cassady grew up will pay tribute to one of its more interesting sons, when the premiere Annual Neal Cassady Birthday Bash takes place in Denver, Colorado, on Sunday, February 7th, close to, just one day before, the man of the moment would have chalked up his 84th year.

The occasion, staged in a well-loved and historic drinking haunt called My Brother’s Bar, at 15th and Platte, promises an entertaining mixture of songs and readings and even attendance by members of the Cassady family, including an in-person appearance by the matriarch of the clan.

Resident in London for many years, Carolyn, whose own autobiographical take on these lives and times was provided by her acclaimed 1990 memoir Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg, will join the festivities.

The bar even has clear evidence that Neal Cassady had at least an occasional beer there: a prized and framed note, written from the state reformatory, which asks a friend if he’ll cover a drinks tab he had built up there, is on display. “I believe I owe them 3 or 4 dollars…please drop in and pay it, will you,” it pleads.

Cassady lived life to the full – his hobo instincts delivered extraordinary adventures and also the carnage of relationships de-railed by that constant urge to seek more – and usually somewhere else. Even he and Kerouac had fall-outs and the powerful kinship they felt in the late 1940s was tarnished by the early 1960s.

But Kerouac believed that Cassady was more than just an untameable livewire and irresponsible hedonist. He saw great qualities in his writing style and claimed to learn from his expression in letters, as electric and loose-limbed as his speech. But little survived the peripatetic rampaging and only The First Third, an autobiographical novella published in 1971 after the author’s death, has really seen the light of the day.

However, the legacy of this larger-than-life figure will be considered and applauded when My Brother’s Bar unveils what promises to be merely the first of a yearly acknowledgement of Cassady’s idiosyncratic contribution to a period of great change in the artistic and political consciousness of the USA.

Wendy & Lisa’s impressive post-Prince parade

08/01/2010

Two US television shows with little in common beyond the fact that they have made their mark on the viewing public and garnered critical warmth, arrived in Britain this week: the debut series of Edie Falco’s post-Sopranos project Nurse Jackie and the fourth season of the superpowered soap Heroes.

Yet this pair – one a dirty realistic snapshot of life in a New York hospital, sardonic and sassy, the other a post-modern take on the realm of the comic book crusader, flashy and fast-moving – do share an unlikely association: the musical contributions of a couple of one-time Prince sidewomen, Wendy & Lisa.

Nor is it the first time in the last couple of weeks I have noticed their soundtrack credits in a small screen production. I’ve been gently wandering through the boxed sets of the 1930s dustbowl drama Carnivale – a lavishly created and expensive period piece that saw HBO bin it after just two years in 2004 – and who should be the musical maestras but that very same female combination.

Now, it’s some little while since guitarist Wendy Melvoin and pianst Lisa Coleman have been on my radar. I may have seen one on stage at the opening night of Prince’s 31 gigs and at the post-concert bash at the O2 in 2007. But I do remember, for sure, reviewing – and enjoying – one of their early post-Paisley Park forays in 1989.

Fruit at the Bottom had enough class – a taut, wiry folk funk typified by the single ‘Are You My Baby’ – to briefly make an impression on the UK charts but I think the purple shadow cast by their mentor and diminutive giant was a little too over-powering to allow them to truly forge an identity in their own right back then.

Yet, more than two decades on, the collaborative duo have made a definite impression in a field where women composers generally fear to tread – writing for the TV or the movies. Their Hollywood work includes contributions to Toys, the 1992 Robin Williams vehicle, and, three years later, Dangerous Minds, which included Michelle Pfeiffer among the cast.

Most recently, they were involved with the picture Something New (2006), starring Sanaa Lathan, about an African-American woman choosing a career path over romantic entanglement.

Yet there is little question that Wendy & Lisa – who have also in recent years stepped out as the Girl Bros – contributed to the most fertile period in Prince’s career, name-checked on Purple Rain, the album and film that turned the artist from adolescent prodigy into global superstar, and the follow-ups Round the World in a Day and Parade.

However, by 1986, they felt sidelined by their leader’s scheme to expand his band the Revolution and the pair believed their input was being under-valued. A solo, or more accurately dual, career would follow and, even though they have made fleeting links with their former major general in the meantime, their professional lives have been principally forged in other directions.

Wendy & Lisa have been prolific, too, since then but their background contributions to a string on on-screen ventures have marked them as two of the smartest operators in that field of incidental, opening and end-title music that can help make or break the atmosphere, the vibe, of a filmed drama.

Their 2008 album White Flags of Winter Chimneys was their first official Wendy & Lisa release for around a decade but they appear to have now carved out a comfy niche in that hip gay entourage on the fringes of the LA production hothouse.

The ertswhile Princesses came out this year and featured recently with two other pop icons of that scene, Jon Ginoli, lynchpin of Pansy Division, and ex-Chanticleer Matt Alber, in the prestigious Out 100 ‘Class of 2009’ at out.com. Witness Melvoin and Coleman’s creative energies when you catch BBC2’s Heroes – they wrote a theme for each of the characters – or Nurse Jackie, in the midst of a lightning, twelve-night run on the same channel.

Nine out of ten? About 7.5

02/01/2010

Much heralded, the movie version of Nine hit big screens around the world in recent days and this Federico Fellini homage ticks quite a number of my boxes even if it is hard to see the production genuinely appealing to mass audiences and attracting the kind of Academy Award attention predicted by some of the critics.

Directed by Rob Marshall who successfully brought Kander & Ebb’s potent Chicago to cinemas in 2002, this presentation has some of the atmosphere of that work even if it lacks the barn-storming score. Like that earlier smash, Nine has to be regarded as a piece of musical theatre lifted, close to intact, from Broadway and expanded to fit the wider horizons of a celluloid venture.

It is hardly even a question of spotting the joins: around half the picture takes place on the sound stage of the famed Cinecitta studios outside Rome, in essence within the bounds of a proscenium arch, and, we might add, largely in the imagination of Guido Contini, the Fellini cipher, played by a convincing Daniel Day-Lewis.

Contini is in crisis as he plans Italia, a lavish, ambitious tale of a land governed by men who are driven by their women – mothers, wives, lovers, muses. The director, based on Fellini as he schemed his epic 8½, has lost confidence in his craft. He approaches the latest project, all set to run, scriptless and distracted as tensions with his producer, in his marriage and with his mistress leave him on the verge of nervous breakdown.

Such criss-crossed emotional wires are the perfect vehicle for dramatic set-pieces as a stellar female cast – lover Penelope Cruz, wife Marion Cotillard, costume designer Judi Dench, leading actress Nicole Kidman, mother Sophia Loren, journalist Kate Hudson and prostitute Fergie – lend a musical gloss to the psychological machinations and the artistic slump in Contini’s life.

Where Nine succeeds most is in the neurotic dealings of Day-Lewis’ main protagonist. Oft cast as the period Anglo, the actor immerses himself in the part with commendable vigour: the wardrobe, the trilby, the shades, the Alfa Romeo speedster and the ever-present cigarettes summon with conviction the Roman land of La Dolce Vita.

But the actor himself inhabits the role in more than a mere sartorial sense. The accent is authentic and without exaggerated strains of caricature, the intensity of the eyes is both piercing and sometimes compelling, and the occasional breaking smile – when he gently taunts the press ranks as the new production staggers and stumbles into life – paints a rounded if wounded personality.

Less hypnotic are the songs and the lyrics all too frequently jar. The compositions, principally credited to Maury Yeston, each have that hint of the lightly operatic – moving along the plot to an amorphous and frankly colourless palette. Only Hudson’s effervescent, go-go girl showstopper breaks that somewhat restricted mould.

Yet the extraordinary parade of women who grapple with these less than promising tunes actually bring a remarkable verve and passion to the process. It is the drama and the context that pulls you in rather than a blistering hook, an unforgettable refrain or a dazzling fragment of word-play.

So where does Nine sit on a scale of ten? Well, I have to say that this film is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts – as a musical extravaganza its soundtrack generally failed to deliver; as a dramatic cycle propelled by a string of engaging ensemble performances it held me quite rapt. So 7.5, not quite 8½, fits my personal bill.

To wander the back-streets of a main-house production – the script meetings, the on-set bust-ups, the costume fittings, the logistical difficulties of making life art – is fascinating to most of us; experiencing the behind-the-scenes badinage can be as intriguing as the stage or screen work that is ultimately set before the public.

But even if that off-stage, film-within-a-movie structure has less appeal for you, the evocation of the Italian capital in 1965, swinging almost as much as London and more effortlessly stylish, should be enough to keep fans of continental élan, and European art cinema at a particularly fertile moment, content.

Video GaGa: The Lady and the vamp

01/01/2010

The power of Lady GaGa has been one of the most scintillating features of 2009: three number one UK singles, a sprawling debut album and enough visual extravaganza to fill a Fellini film, furnish a Warholian Factory, stock a Kubrick movie set, even add a touch of Dada to the austere corridors of the Royal Variety Performance: a killer queen of kitsch paraded before another Queen of the Kingdom.

As the year ended with ‘Bad Romance’ one of the hit parade smashes of the festive season, the punch-up between Simon Cowell’s house-trained turn and the sabotage scheme of raging social networkers seemed somewhat contrived and certainly rather limp – manufactured muzak versus the faux fury of a Facebook fix – when set against the extraordinary artistic realm of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta.

There are a few popular music-makers capable of moving beyond the asphyxiating straitjacket of the three-minute chart song or the excruciating cliches of rock’n’roll machismo. Some – Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and George Clinton, David Bowie and Prince, possibly the Pet Shop Boys and occasionally Madonna – have managed to create new codes embracing sexual ambiguity, sartorial flair, harlequin games, on disc, on stage and on screen.

But the New Yorker named Lady GaGa in homage to a Freddie Mercury classic is incontestably the arch exponent of such devices right now: a chameleon and visionary, a singer and composer, a musician and dancer, she has brought the notion of art, a tantalising po-mo blend of high concept and trash aesthetic, back to the tired halls of the Top 40.

Lavish, lush, pretentious, maybe faintly ridiculous, this woman’s blend of brazen confidence, larger-than-life style and pure, undiluted schlock have reminded us that so many of the best sounds of the last half century have been accompanied by a large dollop of foppish and self-indulgent absurdity.

Okay, there’s a time for the intense authenticity of Dylan and Lennon and Neil Young but it’s probably back in the past: in these mean and failing times we need something fast, loud and feckless to slightly misquote Lester Bangs’ original take on the Fab Four and the start of the British Invasion.

GaGa’s invasion has been impressive indeed. Her main strike weapon has been a series of ludicrously infectious dance beats, her offensive strategy a sequence of melodramatic vocal hooks, her killer blow a string of made-for-MTV shorts that are so compellingly over the top that you can hardly believe there are still major label budgets like that around to invest in such tender talent.

But this sexually ambivalent showgirl has bucked the trends and been shifting units almost as fast as Susan Boyle – some feat in a period when the music industry appears to be reaching, virtually weekly, for the life support system and with no certainty that the oxygen bottles have actually been re-filled.

While I do share the general critical view that the re-packaged The Fame Monster is an over-long debut set with some extraneous flab, the best tunes – ‘Just Dance’, ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Paparazzi’ – and their video accompaniments – an eye-catching collage of extravagant haute couture and retro sci-fi, arthouse flick and S&M, Hollywood and Las Vegas – are an embodiment of the moment, a snapshot of the state of the (dance) nation.

The drama that unfurls to the strains of the newest 45, ‘Bad Romance’, is a strange burlesque, recalling, quite bizarrely, Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’, hinting at the menace of Clockwork Orange, suggesting the masqued ball of Eyes Wide Shut, bathed in the dazzling fluorescence of the 2001 flight deck and riddled with a multitude of other fleeting symbols: fetishistic white vinyl, cleft-chinned Russian gangsters, and a Leigh Bowery-like interlude. Derivative maybe, eclectic for sure, its 5’15 is the mini-movie video always promised us.

So, in an age where we call fantasy television reality, nothing, it appears, is what it seems. But in GaGa’s cornucopia – where glitter and the gutter mingle, flesh and feathers co-habit, and a simmering soundtrack of porno-pop truly puts the naughty back in the noughties – we have a mirror for our present, morally ambiguous, culturally indeterminate times.

No one is quite sure anymore where the cheap and the vacuous ends and the luxurious and the expensive begins but I would speculate that this lady as vamp, the global star of the last 12 months, has, through her sonic and cinematic merry-go-round, probably got her gold-clad finger-nail set firmly on the contemporary pulse.

 

Journey’s trend: Why this band don’t stop believin’

16/12/2009

In the closing moments of Glee, the newest US smash to creep on to our TV screens, an ensemble of high school singers and musicians deliver an immaculately turned version of a song that has been resonating through American hearts for almost thirty years.

Largely unknown in the UK – Simon Cowell said as much as The X-Factor winner, Joe McElderry, performed the piece in last weekend’s final – the song has struck a chord in its homeland that marks it almost as the ‘God Bless America’ or the ‘This Land is Your Land’ of the MTV generation.

It isn’t an anthem in the traditional sense, but ‘Don’t Stop Believin” – a Top 40 hit for the San Francisco band Journey in 1982 – has certainly emerged as an anthem of the contemporary kind, a song that has ornamented a remarkable string of television shows in recent decades, securing it a reputation that transcends the ephemeral nature of the hit parade.

The song came to my attention again in 2007 after it was utilised as the musical coda to six seasons of the most gripping drama as The Sopranos closed with Journey’s vigorous slice of vinyl optimism blasting out of the burger bar juke box with Mafia boss Tony Soprano, surrounded by his family, looking forward to a more secure future after a terrible round of blood-letting.

It may have been a curious use of an upbeat tale of teen loneliness transformed by love, yet this was not a simple sign-off with the director proposing all was well in Heaven. No, this was the head of an Italian crime syndicate putting in his own quarters into the Wurlitzer and reassuring himself that, amid the carnage, popular music could somehow restore his domestic – and psychological – equilibrium.

The key though, in this three minute cameo combining romantic rags, the lure of the road and erotic riches, is the chorus. In an age when belief systems are less certain than ever, the abstract notion of simply believing is enough to instil a feeling of hope in the tens of millions of American listeners who’ve been affected and inspired by the song.

And they’ve certainly had plenty of chances to encounter it as the piece has made numerous supporting appearances in everything from Scrubs to King of the Hill, My Name is Earl to South Park, Just Shoot Me to Family Guy, not to mention in the biggest small screen hit of them all, American Idol.

It is not without a certain irony that Randy Jackson, one of the permanent judges on American Idol, was bass player with Journey but, it must be added, some few years after ‘Don’t Stop Believin” had enjoyed its stay in the Billboard chart.

For writers Neal Schon – once of Santana – and fellow group members Jonathan Cain and Steve Perry, the song must have generated remarkable royalty earnings since its release, yet Perry was said to be hesitant about the song’s use in The Sopranos. Its ubiquity as a signifier of positive possibility perhaps ran counter to the darker themes of the gangster underworld.

However, the fact that it has since appeared in the 2009 video game Rock Band suggests a further generation, at least, are going to hooked by this enduring composition. While the group themselves are caught in that strange and anachronistic netherworld of soft rock – a time when Foreigner and Boston ruled the airwaves – their signature song has cast off the veils of nostalgia to remain, unquestionably, a contemporary winner.

By the book: Nothing left on shelf in cyber-library

14/12/2009


I have a compulsion about books. So far, I have filled a small house and a large office and a car boot and it’s starting to make me think that bibliophilia may be incurable. I collect these items with a hunger, even read the damn things, too, but I am rapidly beginning to assume that the power of the collecting bug may have overtaken the prospect of ever reading all of ’em.

This is a quite a long term illness. I remember as a teenager, starting to mop up science fiction, then American cultists, and then realising quite rapidly that half an hour spent in a charity shop or two could actually produce a few cut-price gems, slightly dog-eared but utterly serviceable for little more than pennies.

I recall vividly, to this day, a second-hand store on my grandma’s Moss Side high street delivering a second edition of the Beat/Angry Young Men classic 1958 anthology Protest for a far from hefty 15p, at the end of the Seventies. I was only checking something in it last week.

In fact, thinking about it, there was one emporium that truly got me hooked: a shop in my university city of Sheffield called Rare and Racy which became my second, no third, maybe fourth, home, after my basement flat, the Nottingham House pub and the pinball arcade in the students’ union. Rock’n’roll writer-to-be Andy Gill (not the Leeds art student and Gang of Four guitarist, though we were all contemporaries) was one of the kings of the flipper, I do recall, in that long corridor next to the bar.

But Rare and Racy was a place to behold. Novels, poetry, photo collections, quirky postcards, and vinyl records by the several hundred. There was certainly a critic in that city – maybe it was Gill (not A.A.) himself – with a veritable supply of new long players because, every week, there’d be another selection of unspun recordings for my friends and I to plunder. It was the intoxicating height of pub rock and punk, new wave and reggae, and this marvellous shop – still there! – was a great place to spend an hour and a few quid, too.

This was the period when there was scant cash around – grants didn’t go too far even at 20p a pint – but there was the thrill of the chase. If it wasn’t a music fix you were seeking, then there was every chance you’d find a Kerouac or a Wolfe (Tom rather than Thomas) or a Thompson (Hunter S. rather than E.P.) or a Vonnegut lodged near the Donne or the Marvell (Andrew not Comics) off-loaded by the outgoing Lit students. It was a golden age to build your own paperback library and get an extra-curricular education.

Then time moved on and the prospect of scouring musty charity shelves and second-hand racks lost its appeal. Yet, eventually, fantastic new bookshops – Waterstone’s, Dillon’s, Borders – came along and, hip to the fact that there was a whole generation of readers who dug that late 20th Century bag, from Burgess to Ballard, Plath to Amis, Salinger to Pynchon, provided clean-lined displays full of the stuff. And knowledgable assistants. And coffee. Like a Left Bank cafe, only smoke-free and hoovered.

Then and then, Dillon’s was swallowed up. And now Borders has gone belly up, I’m afraid. But, for good or maybe even ill, our new best best-friend, the worldwide web, has, of course, solved the book collector’s dilemma – and how. It has seen off most of those worthy, offline stalwarts because it’s just simply too freaking good at what it does.

Today, I was trying to track a relatively rare collection of verse and prose by punk bassist and poet Richard Hell. Click Amazon. There’s the title in question. Click Marketplace. There’s the item  I want – ‘Used, Good’ – at about half the list price. And there’s the link to a series of further recommendations: all of Hell’s output, it seems, and at smile-inducing, knockdown prices.

When I was 16 or, indeed, 36, I had only a very small sense of what was even out there in print – in the UK, in the USA, around the world. If I’d gone into a good bookshop in 1986 or 1996, neither I, nor they, would have known what the hell Richard Hell had published. Now, the net gives me instant, comprehensive information and all at prices that are a fraction of what I would have paid in Waterstone’s if I’d known the book even existed!!

In other words, the book addict now has a virtual dealer in his own cyber-library and no volume need remain on any shelf – real or imagined – for long. It’s just there. Available. And winging its way in cardboard or brown paper in about three days’ time. I haven’t yet pressed the ‘Order’ button to access Hell and his short oeuvre. But I no doubt will. It’s there in a my hyper-basket. And will, quite probably, be wending a course into my quite literal mailbox very soon. My groaning bookcases will have to accept another gaggle of new arrivals.

Home-grown stars: A fading football vision

12/12/2009

The news that Paul Scholes, aged 35, would be invited to sign a further year’s contract with Manchester United is a symbol of an older age in English football when one-club players were not uncommon and a career, from teens to retirement, would be played out with the same team.

The fact that Scholes’ team-mate, Ryan Giggs, a further year on in life, is also a continuing force in the United squad adds further rarity to the situation: home-grown players who perpetuate their position in the highest echelon of the professional game.

Both were part of a so-called golden generation of United player who emerged in the early to mid-1990s and set the club on course for an unprecedented era of success in the national sport. Giggs’ feat of winning 11 Premiership championship medals is surely beyond repetition and Scholes is not too far behind.

Their role in the Old Trafford club’s domination of the domestic game for the last decade and a half is a reminder of how football teams once relied on that kind of self-nurtured talent and avoided spending stellar fortunes on an internationally-sourced line-up with several top-notch and expensive players allocated to most positions.

Half a century or so ago, the Busby Babes – a sequence of teams of youngsters shaped by manager Matt Busby – won the first five FA Youth Cups, a clear sign that United were developing a conveyor belt of unknown talent. By the middle of the 1950s, there was every presumption that this supply line of apprentices would create an extended domination of trophies at home and abroad.

When eight of the young players – including probably the greatest of all, Duncan Edwards, the youngest ever England international – were killed in the Munich air disaster of 1958, the plan was severely disrupted. Busby himself only survived by the skin of his teeth and dreams of an expected European victory were dashed.

Busby, for a period, had to abandon his home-grown squad plans – but not for long. In the early 1960s he splashed a phenomenal, and record-smashing, £115,000 on the Scot Denis Law, unhappily ensconced in Italy at the time. But when the reconstruction saw United eventually win the prime continental prize, the European Cup, Law was absent through injury and eight of the triumphant line-up were from the United nursery, including the mercurial George Best.

Yet, when we contemplate the golden moments in the history of successful teams who eschewed huge spending and, instead, relied on their own, self-generated stars, we have to reserve a special place in the canon for a pair of legendary sides – the Glasgow Celtic European Cup winners of 1967 and the Ajax outfit who repeated that feat in 1995.

Celtic, who beat United by a year to the title of the first British team to capture that prestigious prize when they defeated Inter Milan, consisted of nine home-grown footballers – only goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson and forward Willie Wallace had played elsewhere. More incredibly, especially when set aside the cosmopolitan nature of the present scene, all eleven players were from the city of Glasgow, an attainment of parochial majesty that will never be witnessed again.

The Dutch team who saw off AC Milan had several club-sourced individuals – and some on the bench, too, as the substitute possibilities had expanded several times since Celtic’s achievement – and were also a younger, less experienced line-up when compared to the earlier Scottish team.

Ajax’s side reflected, too, a growing, if relatively tiny, international influence. Nigerian Finidi George and Finn Jari Litmanen stood for an emerging trend – long common in Italy, by then spreading speedily to Spain and England – that players did not need to be drawn from within the borders on one nation. The 1995 winners were quite quickly dismantled: this brilliant gathering was dispersed to the most commercially powerful leagues in Europe as money inevitably talked.

Today, the idea that home-grown talent is to be valued is barely respected. Liverpool once played Liverpudlians by the dozen; now a couple make the starting line-up. Manchester City had a superb record of finding their own, often Mancunian, players; the 2008 buy-out that saw them becoming the globe’s richest club has done for that. Chelsea, in the Abramovich era, virtually said goodbye, captain John Terry aside, to chicks from the club’s own brood.

Yet Manchester United, even at a time when massive deals have brought Berbatov and Rooney and Ferdinand to Old Trafford, have tended to persist with players they can claim as their own – Fletcher and Brown, O’Shea and Gibson, Neville and Evans, Giggs and Scholes are just some of the genuine Old Trafford-ites who are still key players in the 2009/10 squad.

One place, though, where United have been extraordinarily exposed in the last 30 years is in their failure to find an outstanding striker of their own – Liverpool had at least two in Owen and Fowler and maybe three, if we include Rush’s signing as a teen, lower league performer.

Since the long-gone days of the prolific Best and Brian Kidd, the Manchester side may only cite Andy Ritchie and Mark Robbins as examples of goalscorers who came through the ranks with high reputations. But neither quite proved to be the finished article, drifting off to enjoy only moderate attainments with lower profile clubs.

Perhaps, of the current crop of adolescent forwards, Manchester-born Danny Welbeck and – a real indicator of changing times – the Italian Federico Macheda may fill that vacuum. If they do manage to hit the net consistently, we may even have a United manager – perhaps Darren Ferguson, son of Sir Alex the current, and enduring, boss – announcing, during the season 2025/26, that one of them has had his had his deal extended into his 35th year.


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