Saturday, 22 July 2017

Whale Nation - Heathcote Williams


When Heathcote Williams passed away recently I was slightly perturbed at the scant recognition it received in the media. How could the death of one of England's greatest modern-day visionaries pass without some kind of national response? Should not all the clocks have been stopped? Dogs given bones to stop them barking? Pianos silenced? Should not planes have circled overhead, scribbling on the sky the message 'He is dead'?
Maybe it's just me, I thought? Maybe I'm just not in the loop or that I'm just not moving in the right circles? Maybe there was wide-spread mourning and an avalanche of accolades on TV, radio and social media and I just missed it all?

Heathcote's passing caused me to look back again at some of his works and it led to a confirmation that he was indeed a very great man. His was a true vision of Albion and the spirit of Englishness. Not the spirit of conservative politics or of myopia but of freedom, empathy, passion and - importantly - anarchy and Utopia.
It's not often I urge anyone to read a certain book or to listen to some specific music. I might proffer an opinion as in whether I think something is brilliant, mediocre or rubbish but I never (hardly) say something must be read or heard. For Heathcote Williams, however, I make an exception.
I would urge anyone to seek out his works and devour them because I guarantee that if approached without preconception or prejudice there will be a reward at the end. You will come away with something positive, life-affirming and precious.

Take Whale Nation, as an example. Published in 1988 it is an epic poem, a paean, a brilliantly rendered hymn to the glory of the whale countered by the miserable and pathetic attitude of man toward this most beautiful and astonishing of creatures.
'From space,' it begins 'the planet is blue. From space, the planet is the territory not of humans but of the whale. Blue seas cover seven tenths of the Earth's surface and are the domain of the largest brain ever created, with a fifteen million year-old smile.'

There are no words to convey how brilliant the whole piece is. I certainly don't have the words so won't even try. All that can be done is to read (or hear) it yourself. All I would say is that if it fails to move you then there is no more conversation to be had. If after reading it you show only indifference then so be it - but there is no further hope for you. If it fails to move you then - I'm sorry but - you're already dead.

As for Heathcote Williams, he may now have passed away but his spirit lives on. Bathing us all in its light like a heavenly star in the firmament, or rather, like one of Van Gogh's glowing and swirling stars, Heathcote's spirit shines on. 
Heathcote may now have passed away but his spirit and yes, his vision, remains undimmed and in all the works and all the art that he has left us, shines on as bright, as proud, as beautiful and as defiant as ever.

Thank you, Heathcote. RIP.

John Serpico

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Guilty Pleasures (Part 16)


I saw Oasis in Exmouth last Sunday. Or at least they purported to be Oasis. They called themselves Supersonic and purported to be an Oasis covers band but who knows? They might actually have been Oasis purporting to be a covers band called Supersonic purporting to be Oasis?
It gets so confusing sometimes, doesn't it? Trying to distinguish between fact and fiction, reality and illusion, truth and lies. And this is just down here at ground zero and as we cast our eyes beyond the horizon at national politics, global politics, mainstream media, the Internet, Facebook... it becomes intolerable. What exactly is going on? Who or what can you trust if you can't even trust yourself?

They were okay, actually, whoever they were. They played all their hits. Liam's put on a bit of weight since last time I saw him on television but he's entitled to. He's lost none of his attitude though, as evidenced by the remark he made about the last song the DJ played before they came on and plugged in: "Now for some proper music," he said "Not like that last song that was played."
That last song happened to be Wannabe by the Spice Girls. I wanted to call out to him "Haven't you had the ginger one, Liam?" but I thought I might be getting him mixed-up with Robbie Williams and I didn't want to cause upset before the concert had even started. It was a family event after all.

It was a boiling hot day and he was dressed in a coat. Again, I wanted to call out to him: "Liam! Take your coat off! Make yourself at home! This is Exmouth, man! Chill out!" But again, I didn't want to cause a scene so I let him suffer for his art. It can't be easy being a style icon, I thought. Especially on a hot day.
Liam's no stranger to these parts, actually. I saw him about a year ago in Budleigh Salterton when he was walking along with a couple of women and children and as I passed him I overheard him advising one of the women to invest in a pub down here. "You'll make a packet, man." he said. He had a big coat on then too though it wasn't such a hot day.
Robbie Williams is no stranger to these parts too come to think of it, as he owns an apartment down at the Exmouth marina (though he probably just rents it out). He's been seen in town once or twice though nobody's had to take out a restraining order against him yet.

"Yer, Fred, izzat Robbie Williams up there singing? He's put on a bit of weight, ain't he?"

But I digress. 'Supersonic' were entertaining in a slightly mind-bending kind of way. I particularly liked their version of Get It On by T-Rex. And as a review of a concert (which this purports to be), that's all that needs to be said, really. Next week we've got Status Quo playing along with a bunch of other bands all for free at the Exmouth Cider Festival. The week after that, we've got Neil Diamond back again, followed by Elvis Presley the week after. All for free! And in October we've got Pam Ayers coming!

Sometimes I can't tell if I'm living in one of the best coastal towns in England or if it's time for me to move?

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Complete Illuminated Books - William Blake


There's William Blake The Complete Illuminated Books... and all the rest is propaganda.

John Serpico

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The Thief's Journal - Jean Genet


I never understood what Bowie was singing about in Gene Genie and it used to trouble me. I knew all the words but what did it all mean? It was a puzzle. One night when I was at a party, however, the song was played over the sound-system and suddenly (with the aid of a copious amount of hashish, I should add) it suddenly made sense: All that Bowie was doing was throwing together a random selection of rhyming couplets and playing a kind of word association game. The couplets weren't actually intended to make much sense and the clue was in the line "Let yourself go", meaning to stop trying to make sense of it all and just free your mind - and your ass will follow.
I was stoned, remember.
But then what was it with the title 'Gene Genie'? I read later that it was a nod to Iggy Pop but that also it was a pun on the name 'Jean Genet', whom Bowie was an admirer of. When I discovered that Patti Smith was also an admirer of Jean Genet, I wanted to find out more.

The Thief's Journal is Genet's most famous book and it records the progress of him as a young man travelling through Europe during the 1930s. Genet is a tramp, a thief, a beggar and a male prostitute but moreover, he's a brilliant writer. His words are like those of a poet though not in the sense of 'I wandered lonely as a cloud' but more comparing criminals to flowers and waxing lyrical over an accomplice’s cock.

Born an orphan into a world that from the start had resolutely rejected him, Genet in turn rejected the world and aligned himself instead with all the other underdogs: the homeless, the poor, the criminal underground, prostitutes, petty criminals, tramps, beggars, the destitute, the desperate, the unloved and the unlovable.
According to Genet: 'Betrayal, theft and homosexuality are the basic subjects of this book', but it's also about the quest for saintliness though for someone who has only the rags he stands up in, how might this be achieved? For Genet, it's by destroying all the usual reasons for living and in discerning others. Subsequently, he becomes ecstatic in his poverty, and every crime, every petty theft becomes an exaltation.

When all you have is lice and dirt and rags, do you become a worthless person? Of course not. Genet bestows poverty with a virtue and a wonder though he doesn't romanticise it, nor does he bestow honour upon his thievery because after all, there is nothing romantic about being poor and there is no honour among thieves. He does, however, charge them both with erotic intentions. As he puts it from the start: 'I was hot for crime.'

I was once hitch-hiking on the island of Crete when a car pulled over to offer me a lift. Inside were two German girls dressed in shabby hippy chic.
"Where are you going?" one of them asked. I told them and they said to jump in. They seemed to hold little interest in engaging in conversation with me and just chatted between themselves in German. After about ten minutes, they pulled over to the side of the road and one of them said to me: "We'll be back in a minute."
They both got out and I watched as they headed off down a dusty path to an old church. After a couple of minutes they came back and got into the car again, their arms laden with candles.
I couldn't believe it. Had they just stolen a load of candles from a church?
"We use them to light our room," said one of them.
I was dumbfounded. For want of anything better to say, I said: "You won't get to heaven," and they seemed to find the remark amusing as they spent the rest of the journey laughing their heads off. When we arrived at the village where I was living, we all went for a drink together before going our separate ways though I admit, I would have liked to have hung out with them for longer.
I relay this anecdote simply because reading The Thief's Journal reminded me of it. It was my Jean Genet moment when I was hot for crime.

Genet's book is a thing of strange beauty. It transcends the consensus on how a saint should be perceived. It redefines what it is to be poor and what it is to be a petty thief. It redefines what it is to be homosexual and it redefines erotica. From out of nowhere and from out of nothing, Genet forged his own world though which he battled with, was a world of his own making rather than a world imposed upon him of which he had no say.

'My adventure, never governed by rebellion or a feeling of injustice...' says Genet at the start of The Thief's Journal. Years later, however, after becoming a world-famous writer but then to all intent and purpose leaving the business of writing behind, Genet threw his support behind Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the Paris student revolution of May '68, the Black Panthers, and the political situation of Palestinian refugees. It was only a short step thereafter to him declaring an affinity with Germany's the Red Army Faction, for which he drew much criticism.
Was this Genet being still hot for crime, I wonder?

Genet had an obsession with flowers as he so succinctly explains in the Journal: 'I am alone in the world, and I am not sure that I am not the king - perhaps the sprite - of these flowers. They render homage as I pass, bow without bowing, but recognise me. They know that I am their living, moving, agile representative, conqueror of the wind. They are my natural emblem, but through them I have roots in that French soil which is fed by the powdered bones of the children and youths buggered, massacred and burned by Gilles de Rais.'
Jean Genet may well have been the king or the sprite of flowers, who knows? What is certain, however, is that he was the most rarest of flowers and The Thief's Journal is nothing less than him in full, florid bloom.
John Serpico

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Island Of Doctor Moreau - H G Wells


Jung called it 'synchronicity', meaning the underlying connection between disparate people, events, objects and places. The pattern of coincidences. I was listening to an album called Search And Destroy: A Punk Lounge Experience by a Swedish singer called Sofia and on it was an ambient version of the song Mongoloid by Devo who were mentioned in a book I was reading at the time called New York Rocker by Blondie bassist Gary Valentine where he said the line "Are we not men?" by Devo is taken from the 1930s film of H G Wells' novel The Island Of Doctor Moreau.
The following week I was talking to Stacia Blake, who used to dance on stage with Hawkwind and she pointed me in the direction of a second-hand bookshop I'd never been to before. In that bookshop I found a whole load of Michael Moorcock books who was, of course, once very involved with Hawkwind himself. But whilst there I also found a copy of Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and a copy of The Island Of Doctor Moreau by H G Wells which, naturally, I bought. It felt as if I should.

I take it everyone knows who H G Wells is and some of the books he wrote? The Invisible Man? War Of The Worlds? The Time Machine? A fair few of us may have seen the film versions of these works but how many of us have actually read any of the books? I for one have never done so, for sure. I acknowledge there's not enough time in the world to read everything that's ever been written, but H G Wells? He's a classic, world-famous writer. I thought then, that it was time to put this right and it seemed as if Jung's theory of synchronicity (along with Stacia, the nude dancer from Hawkwind) was coming into play to make this happen.

The first thing to do was obviously to check out the "Are we not men?" line and the connection to Devo. And well, well, well. Gary Valentine wasn't wrong. There it was:
'Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to eat Flesh nor Fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to claw Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?'
These lines are chanted-out by the Beast People, a tribe of crippled and grotesque animals who have been transformed into half-humans via the vivisection experiments of a scientist by the name of Doctor Moreau.
Cast out by his peer group in the scientific community of London due to his unethical methods, Moreau has set up camp on an isolated island in the Pacific where he is free to continue his pursuits without interference. Into the mix comes Edward Pendrick, a lone survivor of a shipwreck who, finding himself stranded on the island bears witness to the last days of Moreau's self-made, jungle kingdom.

Seeing as how The Island Of Doctor Moreau was first published in 1896, H G Wells was obviously years ahead of his time and for good reason is cited as 'a father of science-fiction'. The book entertains such themes as morality, man's relationship to animals, science, vivisection and - most importantly - the subject of pain in regard to man's perception of it applying to himself, other creatures and its role in the universe.
It's interesting to remember that Charles Darwin's The Origin Of Species had only been published just over thirty years earlier so the theory of evolution and natural selection was still relatively new when Wells wrote his book. The significance of this is shown in the way Wells looks at the link between animals and men purely through the prism of science, without bringing god and religion into the equation.

It's easy to see a lot of metaphors in The Island Of Doctor Moreau though whether they're intentional metaphors created deliberately by Wells is another question. Does Moreau symbolise God? Is Moreau's laboratory (referred to by the Beast People as 'The House Of Pain') a metaphor for the world? Is the whole book a critique of vivisection and a warning of what could happen if science is given free rein to do as it pleases?
There's a creeping feeling of sickness throughout the whole book and you realise once you've finished it that what you've just read isn't so much science fiction but a horror story. This then leads to an unspoken link between it and Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness (published three years later) that has that same creeping sickness feel about it. In Conrad's book, Kurtz (as played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, of course) like Moreau has also had free rein to create his own jungle kingdom; ending with Kurtz' dying words of 'The horror! The horror!'
Of the two, Conrad's is the better book but an underlying connection is there.

Swedish ambient Punk, Devo, Blondie, H G Wells, Hawkwind, Michael Moorcock, Joseph Conrad.
Synchronicity, in other words.
John Serpico

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Road To Rembetika - Gail Holst


If as Mark Perry of Alternative TV once surmised in the song How Much Longer that "the Punks don't know nothing, the straights don't know nothing, the hippies don't know nothing, you don't know nothing, we don't know nothing" then who, I ask, might know anything? The Greeks, perhaps? And if so, do they have a word for it? Yes and yes. And the word is 'rembetika', meaning 'an expression of the artistic potential of the masses of the sub-proletariat of Greek towns'.

You've got to admire the Greeks and pay them due respect for the way they took a stand against austerity measures as imposed by the Greek government at the behest of the European Union. Against police armed with guns they rioted again and again through the streets of Athens, eating CS gas for breakfast and laughing in the face of State oppression.
At various times it seemed as though they were on the point of pushing their country over into a state of Anarchy, in its true meaning of the word. Sadly, the heritage of being the cradle of democracy in the end won over and faith was put into the electing of anti-austerity politician Alexis Tsipras of the Syriza Party who, as is the wont of all politicians, let his constituency down by buckling and implementing the austerity measures as demanded by the EU and the IMF.

The Greeks certainly put the English to shame who put up practically no fight whatsoever against austerity measures as demanded not by the EU but by the Conservative government; and then in a twinkling of an eye voted not against David Cameron, George Osborne and the rest of the Eton/Oxford Mafia responsible for imposing austerity but against the EU. As if the EU was to blame for it being grim up North.
"We will not say that Greeks fight like heroes," said Winston Churchill once upon a time "But we will say that heroes fight like Greeks." And he was right.

According to Gail Holst, author of Road To Rembetika - Music of a Greek Sub-culture, Songs of Love, Sorrow & Hashish, 'Pre-war rembetika is hashish music', meaning the songs and the music played in the taverns of the port of Piraeus in Greece during the 1920s and 1930s was hashish-fuelled. Rembetika was the voice of the dispossessed, of those who held a natural dislike of the police along with any other form of authority. It was the voice of the voiceless, the result of cultures colliding where Turkish immigrants met Greek proletariats; bonding over their mutual social and economic position and in their adverse relationship to the mainstream of Greek society.
Recognising their commonality as in it was they who were trapped in poverty, they who were harassed by police and always they who were ending up in jail; they sparked off from one and other via a shared love of music and hash.

Their musical instruments were four-string prototypes of the bouzouki, and between them they developed their own slang, their own dress-style, and their own particular swagger. They had their own taverns where they could sing, dance and smoke marijuana to their heart's content, and when laws against the smoking and sale of hashish were introduced and started to be enforced by police, they simply became more closer-knit so as to protect themselves from prosecution.
Those who lived the anti-authoritarian lifestyle to the full were called 'rembetes' or 'manges' and were defined not only by their defiance in the face of poverty and repression and their refusal to be submissive before the police but in their conspicuous generosity, their spontaneity, and their knowing how to enjoy themselves.

Rembetika was urban folk. The expression and the mirror of working class life, dreams, loves and sorrows as experienced by the Greek sub-proletariat. Gail Holst compares it to the urban blues of New Orleans, Chicago and Harlem but to widen the field of reference, it could just as easily be compared to many other forms of music or culture born from the working class. Meaning, rembetika was R&B, rembetika was Rap, rembetika was Soul, Garage, Oi!, Grime, etc, etc. Rembetika was Punk - Greek style.
Being a musician herself, in her book Holst focusses a lot upon the actual music as in the instruments, the scales, the metres and the rhythms. Half of her book is taken up with the translations of the rembetika lyrics. She does, however, touch upon the relationship of rembetika with politics and the observations she comes up with are interesting.

Holst points out that there is less publicity about the sufferings of the Greeks during the second World War than about other Europeans. During the years of Italian and then German occupation, for example, not only did the entire Jewish population of Greece perish but hundreds of thousands of Greeks died of starvation. During the following Greek civil war and the interference of the British and later American governments, the witch-hunting of communists became open warfare with even napalm being used against them. According to Holst, it was rembetika songs that were sung all over the country by a population which felt them to be an expression of their collective suffering and rage.
During the dictatorship years in Greece (bolstered, it must be remembered, by America) rembetika wasn't tolerated at all. Ostensibly the persecution was against hashish smoking but because of the association between hash and rembetika, musicians were given much harsher sentences than other offenders. Even the Left had no time for the rembetes and were as rigid and intolerant of them as the Right-wing establishment, essentially because they were not organisable. The rembetes, the manges and rembetika was ungovernable.

Rembetika then, is clearly not just a form of music but more a state of mind and a way of life. Holst explains, however, that once the record companies got involved and rembetika became popular with the mainstream of Greek society, it lost its power to represent that state of mind. The musicianship became much more sophisticated and the association with hashish watered down. The form became vulgarised and associated with merely the smashing of plates and drunken dancing in expensive clubs and bars.
For all that, the spirit of rembetika had been cast in stone and every decade or so its tomb would be raided by younger generations seeking inspiration and something a little more real than what they might have on offer to them at the time. Moreover, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the spirit would suddenly appear in some other form besides music; be it in working class literature, art or film. Or even as riots against austerity.

That same 'spirit of rembetika' is, of course, not totally unique to Greece but can also be found within England, emanating primarily - like in Greece - from the working class. In England it might be referred to as the 'spirit of Albion' and, just as in Greece it's neither of the Left or the Right but is instead ungovernable. When it has appeared as, for example, in the form of Punk, like rembetika it too has been assimilated, watered down and sold back as a commodity for mainstream society though not before sending out shockwaves affecting the whole of society.
When next it might appear and in what form is anyone's guess but that's the beauty of it. Music, literature, art, and film can all be used as 'an expression of the artistic potential of the masses of the sub-proletariat' and can occur at any time. As can riots, uprisings and insurrection erupting throughout the land...
John Serpico