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