Saturday, 26 December 2015

I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp - Richard Hell


Legend has it that Richard Hell invented Punk. The spiky hair, the torn clothes held together by safety pins, the attitude, the back-to-basics rock sound. It all sprang from him. He gave us the band Television with Tom Verlaine, then a version of the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders, and then the Voidoids; as well as helping to turn a smelly bar called CBGB, on the Bowery in Manhattan, into what is now near-universally recognised as being the cradle of Punk.
Factory Records founder Tony Wilson once said "When you have to choose between truth and legend, print the legend," and this, so it would appear, is the maxim Richard Hell has adopted for his autobiography I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp.

Although I've probably listened to most of Richard Hell's recorded output over the years, I've never actually owned any of his records. As a boy, however, I once saw the Voidoids supporting Elvis Costello and from what I can remember, they were alright. They were nowhere near as good as Stiff Little Fingers who I saw at the same venue (the Locarno, in Bristol) the following month but even Elvis Costello wasn't as good as them. I've also hung out at CBGB a few times in the past.
So yes, being as I'm someone who freely admits to having been unduly influenced by Punk this means, of course, that Richard Hell has influenced me. Or so he says.

I would have still been at school when I saw the Voidoids and at such a tender age I was under the impression that Punk was Year Zero, as in a line in the sand from where everything could be started anew. 'No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones,' as the Clash put it. There was always going to be exceptions, of course, and Richard Hell (along with the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, and a few others) was one of them. Where so many weren't excepted, Richard Hell was.
With this in mind, it's strange to read that he was once drafted to join the Army, to be sent off to Vietnam. He avoided being drafted in the end but his writing about it puts him into perspective as to what time period he was from. I'd never considered it before and I certainly didn't consider it when I saw him play live all those years ago.

Richard Hell's position within Punk was always a slightly veiled one. He was always acknowledged as being an originator but at the same time he was always an enigma. It didn't help matters none that in those days Punk was mutating so quickly that he very soon got left behind and came to sound somewhat dated. Year Zero created a level playing field which meant you were only as good as your latest (or last) record and unfortunately to a lot of young Punk Rockers, Richard Hell just wasn't delivering and his reputation just wasn't sufficient to sustain interest in him.
After a couple of years of trying at it, and after two tours of the UK (one with the Clash, the other with Elvis Costello) Hell called it quits and left the music business for good to reinvent himself as a professional writer.

I've no problem with the idea of printing legend over truth, and Richard Hell must know he has a vested interested in his so it's hardly likely he's going to set out to destroy it in his autobiography. The problem, however, comes when he veers away from his legend and starts to fill in the blanks with his personal views on people and events, and when he tries also to bolster the legend. This is when he starts coming across as being an unlikeable character.

I read somewhere that Hell spent 6 years writing this book and in a way it shows because not only does the tone keep changing but there's a lot of back tracking and revisionism going on throughout. One minute he'll disparage someone or something but then later on he'll do a reappraisal.
This is more than evident in his treatment of Tom Verlaine who throughout almost the entire book, Hell rips apart his character until the very last page when he suddenly tells us how he loves him and how he's grateful for him.
When he writes about touring the UK he has nothing good to say about the experience at all and holds nothing back in expressing his disgust about almost everything English. Right at the end of that particular chapter, however, reading as though it's been tagged on as some kind of disclaimer, he writes: 'I should add that on the whole, all the above said, I've gotten more attention and respect from the British writers and music public than I have from the American... Those British kids were honest and spontaneous and unpretentious and funny. They took care of each other.'
It comes across as being painfully cynical, actually. As if those last words were being added on so as not to alienate his British market.

Rather than going on (and on and on), I'll come out with it now: I thought I was going to like this book but instead ended up disliking it and even disliking Richard Hell too. The first sign that something is going wrong is when he starts to quote lines from some of his favourite poems. There's a couple of poems in particular, from a poet by the name of Andrew Wylie, one of which goes: 'I fuck your ass. You suck my cock.' And that's it. A complete poem that Richard Hell likes and rates highly. Call me a philistine but am I meant to be impressed? It's not exactly William Blake, is it?
He then introduces Patti Smith into the story and describes her as 'skinny as a rod, massive tits deceptively draped in her threadbare overlarge Triumph motorcycles T-shirt'. I mean, who gives a fuck about Patti Smith's tits? What have they got to do with anything? Is this description of her in any way valid? Is this the best way of describing her? I thought, after all, that Richard Hell was a writer? Good with words?
Later on in the book he ends up writing about his experience of S&M and out of the blue - for the first and only time - he suddenly mentions Kathy Acker: 'Some years later when Kathy Acker wanted me to slap her while I fucked her in the ass, it was hard to work up the motivation, even to keep a straight face. Not that I didn't enjoy it.'
Again, where's the validity in mentioning someone like Kathy Acker in this manner? What point does it serve? Particularly as she's now dead so has no right of approval or reply.
It's when writing about touring Britain that Hell gets it spectacularly wrong, however. On so many things. As an example, he's the only person to ever believe that Malcolm McLaren would never exploit anyone for financial gain. The only explanation for the whole chapter regarding Britain is that at the time he was a full-blown junky. His judgement may have been a little clouded for this reason maybe? Possibly? Perhaps?

As I said, I wanted to like this book and I wanted to like Richard Hell but the opposite has happened. I also fail to understand all those who have praised it (including Thurston Moore and Kathleen Hanna) because I feel he's actually made a mistake in writing it as (in my eyes) it's damaged his reputation irrecoverably. I wonder if Tom Verlaine has read it and if so what he makes of it?
And in conclusion: Between the Voidoids and Television, without question the better band is Television, particularly when comparing the Voidoids' Blank Generation album to Television's Marquee Moon.
And the most interesting character is Lizzy Mercier Descloux...
John Serpico

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Exmouth Bound Soundtrack (Part 1)


Exmouth marks the western end of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site and is serviced by First Great Western Railway. It's the last station stop on what is called the Avocet Line and by train, you can go no further. Exmouth is the end of the line and in more ways than one...

Travelling up and down this line almost every day of the week, we read our books or we all gaze out the windows, our iPhones providing the soundtrack to the world passing by outside...

Friday, 18 December 2015

Love In The Days Of Rage - Lawrence Ferlinghetti


Lawrence Ferlinghetti waxes lyrical over May '68 and apart from a lack of paragraphs what do we get? Well, to be honest it's hard to tell. It's a sumptuous read but behind the poetical writing and the literary allusions, what's at its core? I only ask because of the book's subject matter and because of who Ferlinghetti is. You would think it would have a meaning to it, if not a message? In fact, I demand a meaning and a message precisely because of its subject matter and who it's written by.

Ferlinghetti's no fool and he has form but neither are we and we got form too, eh, kids? This is 2015 moving into 2016 after all. You know, these are the days of miracle and wonder, of the bomb in the baby carriage wired to the radio. So with this in mind and with my rose-tinted glasses tucked firmly away I read Love In The Days Of Rage.

Set in Paris, 1968, it's a story of a 40 year-old American art teacher by the name of Annie; meeting, dating and falling in love with a 55 year-old Portuguese banker called Julian. It's Spring and France is in crisis state as students riot and workers strike. Revolution is just a shot away but what can a pair of lovers do apart from contemplate their navels and be swept along by the tide of events?
Being a teacher at a University, Annie is closer to the action than Julian simply because all her students are out in the streets and it would be rude not to join them. Of the two of them, however, it's Julian who talks the talk as he opens up about his past as an anti-fascist anarchist. But does he walk the walk?

As the story unfolds it becomes clear that he doesn't and is, in fact, cynical beyond belief. In his eyes he's top anarchist and all his old comrades who he now hates are 'lumpenproletariat, made only for slavery, for continued slavery. They wanted "liberty" for everyone, in the abstract, but they couldn't give full liberty to anyone to act on his own'.
So since those days of his youth he's abandoned his comrades and struck out on his own to worm his way into the heart of the system, in a bid to bring about its downfall from within. Only he, amongst all other revolutionaries is serious. Only his vision is right. Only his path the true one. Rather than working with others to overthrow the machine, he sees himself as the poison within it. And as for the student revolution going on outside his very window: 'They'll have their little 'summers of love'... their beautiful little fires of rebellion will burn so bright - and then - pouf - out like a smoking wick with the first winds of winter... swept away by nothing more than the ticking of the clock, all of them graduated into the real world...'.

Annie rightfully accuses him of being a hypocrite because for all his holier-than-thou ideas on how and how not to fulfil a revolution, the fact of the matter is that he's a banker earning a good living at the heart of the capitalist system.
Julian, however, has a plan. He has insider knowledge and knows that the Bank of France, in fear of Paris becoming an occupied city, is moving a very large part of its most valuable security bonds to a secret location out in the countryside. Julian intends blowing to smithereens the train on which the bonds are being transported, destroying the whole lot with one very powerful plastic bomb.
And that's it. That's his big idea. That's what makes him top anarchist. Blow up the Bank of France's securities and then run to the hills, spending the rest of his days hiding out with his girlfriend.

It's not a bad idea as such but to hold it above all other ideas is just plain wrong. Revolution is horses for courses and a student rioting in the street is just as valid and worthy as a worker striking, a pamphleteer handing out leaflets, a person feeding the homeless, a person raising their fist, a person raising their voice, a person inciting violence, a person calling for peace, a person offering hope, a person offering love, or indeed a person blowing up a train full of money.
As isolated actions they're all just drops in the ocean but when in conjunction with other actions it's an alternative. A revolution, even.
Any successful, effective revolution is a many-headed hydra. If one head is cut off, there's another in its place. A single-headed revolution can easily be defeated but not so a many-headed one. Does Lawrence Ferlinghetti not understand this? If so, then it's not the message his book conveys.

You can't tell if they're based on anyone in real life but Annie and Julian aren't very likeable characters. He's cynical and has an ego problem, she's a dope for putting up with his bollocks. And for someone who says their father once had an affair with Emma Goldman, she's actually quite boring. An armchair Lefty.
What saves the book is Ferlinghetti's descriptions of the unfolding events of May '68. In fact, he does a very good job of it. All the slogans are in there such as 'Under the paving stones, the beach', 'Be reasonable - demand the impossible', 'A cop sleeps in each of us. You have to kill him', and one of my favourites: 'Those who make a revolution by halves dig their own graves'.
There's also a couple of mentions of bibliophile George Whitman and his Shakespeare & Co bookstore which are rather sweet, particularly a description of Whitman rushing about thrusting glasses of tea or punch and cups of soup into strangers' hands as if they were survivors of a war. Which in a way of course, they were, following the bouts of street fighting right outside his shop.

As for meaning and message, however, Love In The Days Of Rage offers very little that is of any use to the modern day anarchist romancer; pandering instead to a flabby nostalgia for radical days now lost in the eiderdown of middle-aged, middle class, middle-of-the-road ennui.
John Serpico

Friday, 11 December 2015

Perverted By Language: Fiction Inspired By The Fall - Edited By Peter Wild


At the end of a night's drinking an idea can be hatched that at the time seems the most brilliant thing ever but when viewed in the cold light of the next day is quickly dropped and never considered again. Perverted By Language: Fiction Inspired By The Fall as edited by Peter Wild is one such idea that by some quirk of fate was carried through to fruition.

Approach a bunch of writers and ask them to write a short story using the title of any Fall song as the inspiration. Yes, good idea. After all, The Fall are renowned for having uniquely interesting song titles so it would be handing inspiration to those writers on a plate. Get some funding from the Manchester International Festival and away you go. A sure fire winner.

So why is this book so curiously unsatisfying?

There are 23 stories in all from 23 writers, a lot of them I must admit to not knowing at all. Among the names I do recognise, however, are Nicholas Blincoe, Michael Faber, Niall Griffiths, Stewart Lee, Nicholas Royle, Helen Walsh, and John Williams. The editor, Peter Wild, I know nothing of. Not that this matters.

The most well known of these is probably Stewart Lee, the stand up comic, and it's interesting to read what he comes up with using the 1995 Fall song The Aphid as a title. It turns out that his is one of the best as he adopts a very good and quite unexpected writing style.
The best one of them all, however, is An Older Lover Etc by John Williams and the reason for this is because it's not a piece of fiction; it's factual, relaying John's personal encounters with and experiences of The Fall back in the early Eighties.
There's an overload of name-dropping in John's piece but rather than being cringe worthy it captures a precise moment in time for posterity if nothing else. And what makes it all the more interesting is that John mentions Kay Carroll a few times who in the early years of The Fall was the formidable 'matron' of the band and a very important part of it. Kay was also - apparently - the older lover of Mark E Smith, and whom the song is about.

And talking of Mark E Smith, by all accounts he didn't think too much of this book as well although he did at least have The Fall perform at the launch party for it. And that's quite significant actually, as there's probably no other book regarding The Fall that he'd have done that for.

Not that it alters the fact, however, that the book is still a curiously unsatisfying affair.

The thing with projects such as this is that they're one-offs, meaning this particular exercise in getting writers to write some short stories based on Fall song titles will never be repeated again, which is why I think editor Peter Wild should have been a lot more ruthless. He should have approached a much wider range of people to write for the book and held out for them. He should have asked Will Self, Shane Meadows, Neil Gaiman, Nick Cave, Frank Skinner, John Cooper Clarke. He should have asked Kay Carroll or Marc Riley. Can you imagine? He should have asked Hilary Mantel.
And when it came to editing he should have been unforgiving with no qualms about rejecting unworthy pieces. Niall Griffiths' piece based on Bingo Master's Break Out, for example, I would have thrown right out.
I wonder if any of the writers in this book were actually paid anything for their efforts?
I hope not.
John Serpico

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Opium - Jean Cocteau


Jean Cocteau's Opium is not so much an ode to the drug but a diary of his thoughts, memories and dreams during his withdrawal from his addiction to it during his stay at a French clinic. There's no explanation of how he became addicted to the pipe in the first place and no description of the cure process but instead is a record of his state of mind laid down in words and drawings.
Curiously, in many ways Cocteau's drawings convey a lot more about where his mind is at than his words but then again maybe that's understandable? Does not a picture, after all, paint a thousand words?

In saying this, however, there are three notes in the book that do stand out, the first (and one of Cocteau's most famous quotes) being:
"Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing towards death. To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving. It is to concern oneself with something other than life or death."
The second being:
"The smoker has a bird's eye view of himself."
And the third being:
"The Normal Man: Elder pith addict, why live this existence? It would be better to throw yourself out of the window.
The Addict: Impossible. I am floating.
The Normal Man: Your body will quickly reach the bottom.
The Addict: I shall arrive slowly after it."

Listen. I'm not one to romanticise or glamorise drugs at all. I've seen the needle and the damage done. I'm not about, however, to deny their existence or become sanctimonious about drugs. I'm not a drugs zealot but neither do I run scared of them. In this world you choose your poison or if you don't then it will choose you. Jean Cocteau chose the poppy and though he became addicted he regretted it none.
Written in the 1920s, his was one of the first books (along with De Quincey's Confessions Of An English Opium Eater) to discuss opium and addiction without prejudice nor shame and in doing so, a doorway - a portal - was prised open just that little bit further allowing others to squeeze through and report on twilight worlds hitherto unexplored.

I don't believe for one moment that Jean Cocteau influenced anyone into experimenting with opium just as I don't believe the works of William Burroughs or Lou Reed led people into taking heroin. Drugs have always been with us and always will. They have always been used and will always continue to be used no matter whether they're condoned, condemned, legalised or prohibited.

Jean Cocteau's Opium (or to give it its full title, Opium - The Diary Of A Cure) isn't an essential read at all, in fact it's probably of more interest and of more relevance to his admirers than to those interested in drug culture as in it he writes more about the theatre, poetry, art and his friends (such as Eisenstein, Proust and Picasso) than he does about opium. It is, however, an important book if only for the fact that it was written by an important artist who these days appears to have slipped from people's consciousness. Apart, that is, from in Exmouth where a Jean Cocteau revival is spluttering into life...
John Serpico
Jean genie

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Notes Of A Dirty Old Man - Charles Bukowski


It was the sex fuhrer/tattooed beat messiah Zodiac Mindwarp himself who first introduced me to Charles Bukowski's Notes Of A Dirty Old Man when many years ago he advised that this particular book was his bible. I promptly sought out Bukowski's works and read two of his novels, Post Office and The Most Beautiful Girl In Town but I must admit I wasn't overly enamoured by them. Perhaps my expectations were too high? Or perhaps at that time I was? They weren't bad books in the slightest but they just didn't grab me.

Years later, I finally get round to reading the specific book Zodiac was referring to and I'm flabbergasted by just how good it is. Titter ye not, as Frankie Howard would say. Bukowski's writing explodes, pops and fizzes like a firework. In fact, almost every sentence in every paragraph explodes, pops and fizzes with a new thought, a new idea or a new turn of phrase as if he was writing for his life and in many ways I guess he actually was. He was writing for his rent, for his next meal and to be able to get drunk - and not necessarily in that order. He was writing to survive.

Notes Of A Dirty Old Man is a collection of the columns Bukowski wrote for a free alternative newspaper in Los Angeles during the late Sixties by the name of Open City. It's here that he was given free rein to write about anything he wished and it's here that he found his true voice.

'One day after the races, I sat down and wrote the heading, opened a beer, and the writing got done by itself', as he explains in the introduction 'There seemed to be no pressures. Just sit by the window, lift the beer and let it come. Think of it yourself: absolute freedom to write anything you please. Hit the typer on a Friday or a Saturday or a Sunday and by Wednesday the thing is all over the city. People come to my door - too many of them really - and tell me that Notes turns them on. A doctor comes to my door: "I read your column and I think that I can help you. I used to be a psychiatrist".'

It's from here that Bukowski created his art, delivered in a certain style that's clearly been much copied but never bettered. There's a world weariness in his writing that can be a little depressing at times as though he's down with the blues and the only way out is to have another drink but - and it's a big but - when he's relaying anecdotes about meeting Neal Cassidy (of Kerouac's On The Road fame) or delivering tales of drunken escapades with fellow barflies, or giving state of the Union addresses, Bukowski is utterly brilliant.

'What is not in the open street is false derived, that is to say, literature,' said Henry Miller. Bukowski, however, was not so much writing of the open street but of the bars and the gutters. 'We are all of us in the gutter,' said Oscar Wilde (or was that Chrissie Hynde?) 'But some of us are looking at the stars.' Bukowski wasn't looking at the stars but rather his gaze was fixed firmly upon a bottle of beer, a bottle of wine or on occasion a bottle of whisky. This is where he drew his inspiration: from these bottles and from the life associated with the continuous consumption of the cheapest varieties of the contents therein.

I'm not sure I'd like to emulate Bukowski's lifestyle or tread the same path he took (for one thing, I couldn't manage the hangovers) but as an example of how to write attention grabbing columns and as an insight into the strata of American society he was very much a part of, I'd say Bukowski's Notes Of A Dirty Old Man cannot be beaten.
John Serpico

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 29)


"Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream..."

"It is not dying, it is not dying..."

The Beatles - Tomorrow Never Knows via Timothy Leary - The Psychedelic Experience.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

One Train Later - Andy Summers


One Train Later by Andy Summers. Yes, that's right, he of the Police. It's his memoir and as pop memoirs go it's a good one and I'm not even a fan. I can recall in old interviews with the Police it often being mentioned that Stewart Copeland once played with arch hippies Curved Air and that Sting used to be a teacher in Newcastle but I can't recall much ever being mentioned regarding Andy Summers' past which is strange because boy, does he have one.

Amusingly, it all starts with Andy as a young boy having piano lessons and him being asked one day by the husband of the teacher to whip him with a belt because he "deserves it". Andy duly obliges as he can't see anything wrong with it and why should he? He then progresses to having to walk through a wood each day to get to school. This particular wood, however, is populated by hundreds of homosexuals - all pale, lonely, and middle-aged to a man - all twirling their spinnakers from behind stout oaks, as Andy puts it. I'm not making this up. He's then one day given an old, beat up, Spanish guitar by his uncle and from that moment his universe shifts and it's all down hill from there, really.

He jams with whoever he can, becomes an adept guitar player, meets a singer/keyboard player by the name of Zoot Money, gets invited to London by the manager of Alexis Korner's band and with Zoot Money becomes the R&B house band at a club in Soho where he meets and plays with everyone from John Lee Hooker, Eric Burdon, Albert Lee and Ben E King to Ronnie Wood, Georgie Fame, John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and the Pink Faries.

One evening he takes a new drug that people are talking about in almost hallowed terms. It's Andy's first ever acid trip and fair play to him for writing about it so openly and admitting that it affected him profoundly. It's like Bill Hicks doing his monologue about how you never read or hear about good drug stories in the news, only bad ones. Andy's is a very good drug news story indeed and interesting to boot.
Him and Zoot almost immediately split up their R&B band and set their controls instead for the heart of the sun. They dramatically change their style of dress and start writing songs about universal love before painting all their equipment white and employing a psychedelic light show casting swirling shapes and groovy colours upon them whilst playing live. They call themselves Dantalian's Chariot and become a hardcore, psychedelic hippy band. Check 'em out on YouTube, freakoids.
Nothing lasts forever, of course, and after being upstaged one night by nature's own psychedelic light show as in the Aurora Borealis and being involved in a near-death car crash brought about by bad vibes, the band splits.

He joins Soft Machine, then the Animals and whilst in America jams with Jimi Hendrix. Did you know that? Andy Summers of the Police once jammed with Hendrix? I certainly didn't. I always assumed he was just some boring old wanker in a pop band that had hitched its wagon to the Punk train and found fame and fortune by jettisoning any notion of a scruple. How wrong was I? Sort of.
But anyway, after returning to Britain he joins Neil Sedaka's band, then the Kevin Coyne band, then the Kevin Ayres band; and even plays lead guitar at a live rendition of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells and is touted as a potential new member of the Rolling Stones. Fucking hell. I didn't know any of this. Through a series of twists of fate via uber hippies Gong he then meets and re-meets Stewart Copeland and Gordon Sumner and from then on pop history is in the making.

Now, I was never a fan of the Police but unlike Julie Burchill I never considered them to be the worst band in the world. No, I tolerated them. They were one of the first bands I heard being spoken of in terms of 'selling out' but this was in the Punk Years when such things seemed to matter.
The Police never had any Punk credibility from the start and it was fairly obvious to everyone at the time that they were simply using Punk as a stepping stone to pop stardom, though most people didn't seem to have much objection to this, probably because they were never promising us the world unlike some other bands I could mention.

I remember back in those days I used to bleach my hair white (and dye it blue, and black, and yellow) and girls would approach me saying I looked like Sting and though I didn't take it as a compliment (because Sting had no Punk credibility) I would still try and take advantage of this predicament. If you know what I mean?
At that same time, I remember going to the Stonehenge Free Festival and the Police album was being played over the p.a. and me feeling uneasy about it. As if something a little better, a little more independent could and should be played instead. This feeling of unease regarding them was crystallised when they ended up playing in Chile when under the jackboot of the Pinochet regime and Argentina when under the junta of the Generals and their dirty war campaign against their own citizens. Did the Police ever play Sun City in South Africa at the time of Apartheid? If not, they might just have well as done just to have the full deck.

Andy doesn't shy away from this stuff in the book but at the same time he fails to see anything explicitly wrong in endorsing these regimes by playing under them. Similarly, when they play Mexico the tickets are sold at $40 each which is well beyond the means of their fans there, meaning they end up playing to a rich elite.
They play in India and Andy describes the atrocious poverty there (which he's taken aback by) but then he ventures into Calcutta to take fucking photographs of it! It's a cheap holiday in other people's misery, as John Rotten said. It's also known as 'splendid isolation' whereby a person (or a whole country) stands back in a way that makes them seem special, believing it's not their business to comment or get involved in any direct way with what is usually tumultuous events. And Sting's still at it to this day, playing exclusive parties for the children of Russian oligarchs - for 'the experience', apparently.

Either the Police never really understood what they were doing and were just innocents abroad or (as managed by Miles Copeland) they were cynical and calculating. I suspect the latter. At one point they play a gig at Disney World, in Florida, and they worry it might be detrimental to their credibility. This in itself suggests a disconnect. Play to members and associates of Chilean death squads and not care a fuck; play to Mickey Mouse and the fat spawn of fat Americans and lose sleep over it.

When they headline the Reading Festival in '79 an awards ceremony is held backstage with A&M Records who present them gold records for the sales of their album. Mark Perry of seminal Punk band Alternative TV and Sniffin' Glue fanzine intrudes upon it and yells at them all, accusing them of selling out and betraying Punk. He ends up being forcibly ejected. "We didn't carry out his agenda," writes Andy "But that was never in the cards."
In Mark Perry's defence I'd argue he never had any agenda just a dream by the name of 'Punk' and he wanted it to be wild and free, not corporate and concerned only with record sales. But how little did the Police understand this. How little did they understand Punk at all, in fact, as evidenced by Andy reporting on a 1977 Punk festival the Police took part in alongside the Clash, the Damned, Eddie and the Hot Rods and the Jam. On the journey back from the festival, all the bands are in a coach and he describes how Sting is sat reading a book and how Stewart Copeland is "mortified by this defiant act" because "no-one is supposed to read in the Punk world." Is he serious? Where the fuck did he get that idea from?

It's all water under the bridge now, of course, and I don't really intend my observations to distract from what a good book this actually is. It's quite a hefty tome too, coming in at over 450 pages so these episodes I highlight are essentially minor incidents in the whole sprawling tale.
I'm loathe to criticise the Police too harshly as well because weirdly, I suspect if I ever met Andy Summers (or even Sting come to that) I'd probably get on with him. I'd approach him (and Sting - particularly Sting) with caution and be wary of him, however, simply because of the Jupiter-sized ego he carries with him. I'm not too sure I'd get on with Stewart Copeland though, as he tends to come across as one of those loud, annoying septic tanks (yanks) that you bump into when on holiday in Europe.
And if I can just make it clear, I don't hate the Police (as in the band) at all but by doing this review it enables me to also post one of my favourite songs...
John Serpico

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 28)


If I had my way there wouldn't only be fireworks in the sky on Guy Fawkes night and New Year's Eve but on every single night of the year, even at the height of summer. In fact, especially at the height of summer...

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Poems 1956-1968 - Leonard Cohen


Some books being torn, tattered and dog-eared are all the better for it. It lends them character.

When travelling to a different country or even to just a different town, I always try to seek out any second-hand bookshops or charity shops as there's no way of knowing what book (or books) might be waiting there. You never know what might be found.
Occasionally I might come upon a book in one of these places that I'd quite like to read but it will be damp-stained and thoroughly worn out so I choose not to buy it simply for the fact that I don't want it in my house. I have my standards. Sometimes a book can be found, however, and though its pages might be loose and its cover torn I would still buy it because the damage lends it an unknowable history. Where has it been? Where has it come from? Who else has read it? How did it end up here?

I worked once for a prestigious wine company called Avery’s of Bristol and there I was taught that wine is a living thing that should be respected, be it the cheapest bottle from the shelves of Lidl to the most expensive from the cellars of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The same philosophy is one that I've always applied to books, that they're 'living' things to be respected and like wine they can age, some for the worse but some for the better.

The copy I've just read of Leonard Cohen's Poems 1956-1968 is in a beleaguered condition but I don't mind. I guess that new, shiny copies can still be purchased on Amazon or some such place and there's nothing wrong with that and nothing wrong in getting a copy from there. But a copy from Amazon may look new, it may smell new, it may be pristine but it won't, however, come with a history.

I've never understood Leonard Cohen being criticised for being 'depressing' or for making music 'to slash your wrists to' as I've always found his songs to actually be beautifully uplifting, often serving as a genuine antidote to melancholia. And if Leonard is meant to be such a depressive then how come he's always been such a ladies man?
He's always interested me has Mr Cohen, not only for his songs but for the whole way he's lived his life. In 1960, for example, he bought a house on the Greek island of Hydra and that's where for the best part of the next seven years he remained; writing his songs, his books and his poetry.
I've been to Hydra and it is indeed a very beautiful place. Very rustic, with no cars allowed there and hundreds of cats everywhere. Could this copy of Leonard Cohen's book of poems have come from there? It's possible and I like to think so.

Although not all of the poems would have been written in Greece, a good amount of them would have been and you can tell. If you have any affection for his songs then these poems will also appeal. Plato said: "At the touch of love - everyone becomes a poet" and if that's the case then Leonard Cohen is a man forever in love.
"You tell me that silence is nearer to peace than poems," he writes in Gift "But if for my gift I brought you silence (for I know silence) you would say 'This is not silence, this is another poem' and you would hand it back to me."

For myself, one poem in particular struck a chord going by the title I See You On a Greek Mattress because I too (coincidentally whilst living in Greece) once knew a guy called Steve who I used to really like but have now long lost touch with. And I too have had dealings with the I Ching, again (coincidentally) whilst living in Greece.

A lot of books that I read, once I've finished them I tend to donate to a charity shop rather than keeping them because I always feel that books are meant to be read and not just left on a shelf to gather dust. This one, however, I think I shall keep.
John Serpico

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Impostor - Jean Cocteau


I was unaware of Jean Cocteau's sense of humour until reading his novel, The Impostor. Why did I presume he was a serious-minded fellow interested only in serious art and serious subjects albeit revolving around the avant garde? His humour might be black but here it is on display for all to see if anyone cares to look.
It's rather similar to the way Morrissey is viewed as a miserable person when in actual fact he's a very funny guy. The same with Hilary Mantel as in her being viewed strictly as a serious writer when in actual fact she possesses a very keen sense of humour.

The Impostor concerns itself with the collision between the reality of war and the fantasia of the mind. It's set in France during the First World War at the point where the government has fled Paris and all kinds of madness is subsequently flourishing. Those who have chosen to stay behind are either heroic, loyal, foolish or just plain crazy; and in many cases a good mixture of all four of these things.
Cocteau introduces us to an esoteric troupe of misfits gathered together under the leadership of a princess who has ambitions to be a cross between a Florence Nightingale figure and an actress. She's set up base at an old nursing home in Paris and is setting off for the front line in a convoy of vehicles carrying crates of dry biscuits, oranges and Cordial-Medoc. Their mission being to pick up wounded soldiers and bring them back to Paris.

Just before they're due to depart a sixteen year-old boy in a soldier's uniform enters the camp and on being asked his name is mistaken for the nephew of a famous and much revered General. He does nothing to correct the mistake and in fact assures everyone that he is indeed the General's nephew. The boy is, however, nothing more than a wandering fantasist who has spent his whole life in a world of make-believe and delusion. His fantasies and his adoption of another's identity serve to be a useful asset to the princess who asks him to help her secure the necessary passes and documents required to travel unobstructed through France. He duly sources her the papers that she needs simply by mentioning to the authorities the 'fact' that he's the General's nephew.

Cocteau describes the war as a Catch 22/MASH-type situation of blackly funny and illogical circumstances. He wrote it, however, in 1923 so this is years before either of those books (or films) had even been thought of.
At times it's not the most well written book ever but this might perhaps be down to the translation? It's Cocteau's weaving of reality, fantasy and farce that makes it interesting, particularly in his depiction of the young boy living a life of illusion ultimately to the benefit of other people. The boy himself is unable to distinguish between reality and falsehood but nor does he make any attempt to do so.
His fantasy is his reality, right up to the final moment on the battlefield at the end of the book where he is shot and says to himself he doesn't have a chance unless he pretends to be dead - even though he is actually dead already.

Cocteau would go on to develop his ideas and his writing powers most notably in Les Enfants Terribles before moving into film making. Though having written much poetry before, it was with The Impostor where it all really began and if for no other reason this makes it an important book. Perhaps significantly, the same year that The Impostor was first published Cocteau became addicted to opium...
John Serpico

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Guilty Pleasures (Part 9)


I always thought Boney M were brilliant and subversive. I know they were manufactured and all but so what? Does anyone still care about such things these days?
I've nothing at all against ABBA but at a time when the IRA were at war with the British State did they ever sing a song about Belfast? No - but Boney M did. At the height of the Cold War did ABBA ever sing "I see mushrooms, atomic mushrooms. I see rockets, missiles in the sky. We kill the world - Don't kill the world."? No - but Boney M did. At a time when Bob Marley was considered to be a 'political' singer, did ABBA ever cover any of his songs? No - but Boney M did. And was I just imagining it or did Boney M make Painter Man by The Creation their own and turn it into an anti-fascist anthem (a painter man being what Adolf Hitler was before he started his career in dictatorship)?

I remember seeing Boney M (or a version of them, at least) some years ago at Gay Pride in Amsterdam. There I was, skipping and dancing away amongst a thousand gay men, all singing along to Brown Girl In The Ring (tra la la la la - she looks like sugar in a plum - plum! plum!) and mid-song Bobby Farrell made a short speech from the stage, urging us all to love foreign gay people as much as we love ourselves because they're not as strong or as confident as us and they need our support. "Will you do that for me?" asked Bobby. He himself was originally from Aruba but was by then a resident of Amsterdam where as you might imagine, he was treated like royalty.
Did Cliff Richard ever make such a speech at one of his concerts? No - but Bobby Farrell did.

And talking of Bobby Farrell, wasn't he one of the greatest dancers ever? Wasn't he so obviously born to dance? Did he not blaze like a comet with the wind at his heels?

And so, Boney M are playing at the Exmouth Pavilion next month (or a version of them, at least). Bobby Farrell won't be there as he sadly passed away a few years ago and of course, any version of Boney M without him is like a house without books, or a body without a soul. So should I go to see them? Let's go to YouTube and just remind ourselves of them for a moment, shall we?

The problem with playing just one song by Boney M is that you immediately want to play another and there's such a choice to be made. Let's run with it...

Oh, I just can't stop...

Fuck it. I'm going to see them. They're even being supported by ABBA tribute act GimmeGimmeGimme, which just about seals it. It's like a Don Corleone offer that you can't refuse. I'll be digging out my sequinned cat suit and cape from the back of the cupboard, taking a load of amyl nitrate and I'll be dancing crazy like a fool. See you there, windowlickers.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

To Sir With Love - ER Braithwaite


I read this on the recommendation of Steve Ignorant, ex-vocalist of Crass who, in George Berger's book The Story Of Crass is quoted as saying the following: 'One day we were all talking about books around the table. Penny Rimbaud was talking about Tolstoy and I chipped in with To Sir With Love, and was met with roars of laughter, it was quite a joke. When there was the yearly clear-out of books, out it went. But the Maigrets stayed. That book To Sir With Love is about one of the first black men to go into the East End of London and teach unruly white kids how to respect themselves and other people as human beings. Which I thought was the basis of anarchism, wasn't it?'
The story is essentially just as Steve describes but its main theme is the subject of prejudice and racism as experienced by a black man in late 1940s Britain and how he translates that experience to the kids he teaches so they might learn to respect not only other people but also themselves. The school he teaches at is in the East End of London so as might be expected, they're all from very poor families. He's somewhat shocked at first by the general conduct and crude language of his pupils but come the end he loves them all dearly as they come to love him.

All in all it's a very nice story but is not without flaws. In his descriptions of some of the women - both fellow teachers and 15 year-old pupils alike - there's a fair few mentions of 'large breasts' which doesn't really sit well coming from a teacher who's on a mission to instigate respect. There's also one incident where he refers to a sanitary towel as a 'disgusting object' and the conduct of the girls in his class as 'sluttish behaviour'. ER Braithwaite wrote the book in 1959, however, and it's set in 1949 so at a stretch this attitude toward women may be forgiven because the past is, as they say, a different country. It's hard to ignore it though.

What's possibly more significant - in my eyes, at least - is what the teacher is aiming for in his bid to educate the kids in the ways of civility. They might all be unruly when he at first encounters them but at least they're street-wise and at least they're nobody's fools - and is there anything wrong in being unruly? The teacher seems to want them to be model citizens; obedient to the law, saying 'yes sir, no sir' and never causing a fuss. He wants them to be like him.
He knows, however, that British society can be conservative as hell with all its ingrained codes of crap morality and 'acceptable' racism and prejudice. He's experienced it himself and he soon comes to see that these working class children of parents he describes as looking and acting like peasants from a Steinbeck book are prejudiced against also. Not for the colour of their skin but for their class and their poverty.

He goes out on a date with a fellow teacher to a well-to-do restaurant in Chelsea and the sight of a black man with a pretty white woman immediately instigates racist behaviour and attitude from the waiter. To him it's nothing out of the ordinary but his date storms out of the restaurant in outrage and then vents her spleen upon him. In as much as she's disgusted by the racism she's just as outraged by his willingness to just sit there and take it:
"What was I supposed to do, hit him? Did you want a scene in that place?" he asks.
"Yes, I wanted a scene. I wanted a big, bloody awful scene." she replies.
"What good would that have done?"
"I don't know and I don't care. I wanted you to hit him, to beat him down, down..."
"It wouldn't help, it never helps."
"Why not? Just who do you think you are, Jesus Christ? Sitting there all good and patient. Or were you afraid? Is that it?"
"You're being hysterical, beating people up never solves anything."
"Doesn't it? Well, you tell me what does. You've been taking it and taking it, don't you think it's time you showed a little spirit?"

This particular exchange is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it reveals the extent of the teacher's vision as in how he sees the model citizen should behave. His passiveness and his unwillingness to cause a fuss is essentially allowing what's unacceptable to remain unchallenged and his silence is ultimately condoning racism and prejudice. By not causing 'a big, bloody awful scene' he's allowing the situation to continue and subsequently remaining in a position of being a victim.
So is this how he wants the kids in his class to be? To not speak up, to not challenge, to not object, refuse, reject, abuse? However much he may wish to educate his pupils and teach them good manners, are they forever meant to accept their position in society and subsequently accept the more 'fortunate' positions of others?

For anyone who knows anything about Crass, this is similar to the same impasse that they came up against in their bid to do nothing less than change the world. They were very happy to make a big, bloody awful scene but ultimately were only willing to go so far. They showed spirit, yes, but when it came to the point and the question of 'beating people up' as the teacher puts it, they capitulated and their advocacy of pacifism became a burden that led to being a major factor in them falling apart.
It's interesting that Steve Ignorant recalls his mentioning of To Sir With Love led to roars of laughter around the kitchen table from his fellow Crass members because in actual fact the book contained some pertinent messages if not a significant warning to them. Had any of them actually read it, I wonder?

Apparently the film version of the book, released in 1967 (and set in the Sixties) starring Sidney Poitier and Lulu was a huge box office success and the theme song as sung by Lulu was number One in America for five weeks. Viewed nowadays it's quaint and charming, held together by Poitier's performance. Steve also cites the film version as being an influence upon him along with A Taste Of Honey and Kes. Whilst not being on quite the same par as A Taste Of Honey and Kes (and other black and white, kitchen sink Sixties movies) it's still (in a way) part of that same oeuvre and so is an enjoyable watch if only for Poitier's performance and the often hilarious depiction of 'the wildest set of rebels London ever produced' by rather well-spoken young actors and actresses fresh from stage school.
John Serpico