Monday, 12 December 2016

The Soft Machine - William Burroughs


So, what is The Soft Machine by William Burroughs about? What does it mean? And come to that, what is anything about? What does anything mean?
On reading The Soft Machine it's very clear that Burroughs was way ahead of his time and in fact, we're all still trying to catch up. In this post-truth Donald Trump world, of Brexit and HyperNormalisation, infotainment and fake news, Burroughs is the perfect accompaniment.

Martin Amis once said of Burroughs that when reading a book, most people like to have the author up in the control tower guiding the planes not running around on the runway waving their arms about. Or words to that effect.
William Burroughs was a total genius but if anyone came upon this book (or any others by him, actually) would they take it for the rantings of a lunatic? Would they liken it to a man having just stumbled out of a jungle having been lost there for months surviving on a diet of lizards, bark and bugs? The senseless gibberish of a man in the throes of fever? It's very likely. And would they be appalled? I would hope not. Rather, I hope they would recognise that Burroughs was doing something totally unique within the idiom of language; subverting it so as to reveal the hidden layers underneath and subsequently blasting a portal into another dimension of human perception.

"Shoot your way to freedom, kid," writes Burroughs and he doesn't mean with a pistol. Up to Lexington 125, feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive. I'm waiting for my Man.
"Hello, I'm Johnny Yen, a friend of - Well, just about everybody."
'Green lizard boy with slow idiot smile poses on the bank of a stagnant stream under a railroad bridge A sleeping carrion hunger flickers in his eyes one hand rests lightly on his worn leather jock strap.'
"Cut word lines - Cut music lines - Smash the control images - Smash the control machine - Burn the books - Kill the priests - Kill! Kill! Kill!"
It's a scary world we live in when text derived from Burroughs' cut-up and fold-in technique from 1961 makes more sense and is closer to the truth than what is printed in the newspapers these days.
"We don't report the news - We write it."

How do you review a book like The Soft Machine? The answer is 'You don't'. The Soft Machine is beyond such things. You read it and that's all. In doing so, however, you're allowing its parasitical presence to invade your body so as to do battle with all the other parasites you're riddled with (whether you know it or not?). That's my understanding of it, anyway.
And if you're looking for a name to call your band, this is the place to go. Soft Machine has already been taken (Robert Wyatt had that one) as has Dead Fingers Talk, and even the term 'Heavy Metal'. 'Upper Baboonasshole' has a certain ring to it though, don't you think? Grab it quick whilst it's still going I'd advise, or you'll soon be seeing some act appearing on X Factor or Britain's Got Talent calling themselves it before they hit The Charts...
John Serpico

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Dubliners - James Joyce


In musical terms, A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and Dubliners by James Joyce are overtures whilst Ulysses is the full oratorio in excelsis deo. Finnegan's Wake is free jazz. The thing about all these works is that they're all masterpieces in their own distinct ways, with Joyce never putting a foot (or a word) wrong.
What is also interesting is that Joyce wrote all these books (particularly Ulysses) whilst living in desperate poverty, which tells us great art is not borne from material wealth and the comfort of riches but from adversity and (more often than not) a plebeian imagination. Moreover, what is doubly interesting is that the works of James Joyce have nowadays been claimed by academia and a self-proclaimed cultural elite as their own; proclaiming Joyce's books as being far too difficult for the non-University educated to even contemplate reading. It's called cultural appropriation.

Dubliners is a collection of fifteen short stories first published in 1914 though written some years earlier, all being snapshots of life and events in Dublin during that period. Such is the brilliance of Joyce's writing that it's like putting a magnifying glass to these snapshots to show the finer detail, each detail being a universe unto itself.
Each story is distinctly different, the common theme between them being that for the main protagonist in each, it is a significant yet not fully realised event that is being captured. An additional yet more subtle spin at the end of each signifying another realisation that is unspoken yet just as if not more important.

So, in the story The Sisters, for example, a young man's (Joyce?) old vicar friend passes away and whilst hiding his own feelings so as not to betray how important the vicar was to him, records the thoughts and sentiments of those around him regarding the death. More significant is the revelation at the end that the vicar had been found alone one night in the confession-box of the chapel, laughing softly to himself. It was this that suggested to friends and family that there was 'something gone wrong with him'.
In the story The Encounter, two young boys (one of them Joyce?) bunk off from school and during the course of their day encounter a man who in the words of one of the boys is 'a queer old josser'. A pervert, in other words. The importance of the day and the experience of it is conveyed but more significant is when one of the boys (Joyce?) finds himself relieved to see the return of his friend after being left alone for some minutes with the man because in his heart he had always despised his friend a little.
In the story Counterparts, a man bullied by his employer takes a stand and humiliates him in front of others before dining out on the story in the local bars with all his friends. More significantly, he returns home that night and beats one of his children with a stick for letting the fire in the kitchen hearth go out.

Joyce casts no aspersions upon the characters in these stories but by revealing an additional insight into their lives - and significantly their inner lives - he shines a whole new light upon them. What he so beautifully describes in his writing is the life going on in the outer world but then shines his light upon the inner life. The life that might appear smaller and less significant than the outer one but that is actually far more expansive and much more meaningful.

To continue the music analogy, reading Dubliners is like listening to an LP, with each separate story being akin to an individual song. Any good LP can be listened to either as a collection of different tracks or as a complete piece, and with any good LP there is always going to be favourite tracks. So too with Dubliners there are also favourite stories, most people's being the one that brings it to an end, entitled The Dead.

According to the New York Times, The Dead is 'just about the finest short story in the English language'. According to Evan Dando (of 1990s alt-Punk band The Lemonheads) 'For me, it's all about the Dubliners by James Joyce. I love The Dead'. According to Will Self, Dubliners is 'startling'.
Being non-University educated and therefore unable to even contemplate reading Joyce, I hesitate in laying down any such similar grandiose declaration because I feel I've just not read enough short stories in my time to compare (and I've read a few). I would say, however, that The Dead is far better than that other much-lauded short story, The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway. I would also say that The Dead is a thing of beauty that in the sublime vision it presents, paints a picture of the universe that could be compared to Van Gogh's The Starry Night.
The Dead is the true precursor to Ulysses where Joyce zooms into the detail of the finite then out to the infinite; weaving time, heartache, exaltation and memory into a seamless narrative. If The Dead was a record then it would stand the test of time and be passed on from generation to generation, appreciated by all.
Forever and ever.

John Serpico

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 38)


For some reason the track and particularly the video for Fatty Boom Boom by Die Antwoord always reminds me of Exmouth.
Not sure why.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Factotum - Charles Bukowski


I didn't know what the word 'factotum' meant so I googled it and lo and behold, it means 'a person who does all kinds of work'. You learn something new every day.
Factotum is also the title of Charles Bukowski's second novel, published in 1975 though set just at the end of World War Two. It chronicles him (or rather, his alter ego Henry Chinaski) going from one dead end job to another, maintaining a healthy drinking habit along with the inevitable hangovers. Going from one cheap boarding house and rented room to another, encountering and more often than not doing his best to avoid all the people in a similar situation to himself. It's a bleak, miserable and depressing story but for all that, it has its moments.

Chinaski's a writer and it's from his writing that he wants to make a living but that's easier said than done. His constant drunkenness thwarts him from holding down any job for very long but that's okay because there's always another equally rubbish job to move on to. Or at least there was in those days.
What's more troubling and far more depressing than the world as depicted in Factotum is that nowadays if anyone gets a rubbish job - and there are plenty out there that can suck the life, the blood and the soul from you and all for a basic minimum wage - then they cling to it like a drowning man to a raft in an ocean of circling sharks. It's a constant state of despair battered further by the imposition of austerity measures whilst the rich get richer. Is it any wonder that when there's a riot, alongside lobbing bricks at police, people make a grab for a few commodities out of smashed shop windows?

Chinaski's actually a very funny guy, talking to those he encounters with short, wry comments loaded with an awareness of the absurdity of the situation they're all in. There's also a cruel, mocking element to many of his comments as if to say 'At least I know this is all fucked up, which is more than you seem to'.
There's also, however, a respect for those ducking and diving in a bid to get by and for those who are genuinely witty without even having to try. Respect is also shown to those possessed of a similar awareness, even if they're drowning it in booze as he is doing: "Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed. So I stayed in bed and drank. When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn't have you by the throat."

One of the high points of Chinaski's confessions is when he receives a letter from a New York-based magazine he admires by the name of Frontfire that he's been sending countless stories to in the hope of being published. Receiving rejection slips is the norm until one day he returns home from another day at another rubbish job to find an envelope addressed to him containing an acceptance slip for one of his stories (entitled My Beerdrunk Soul Is Sadder Than All The Dead Christmas Trees Of The World).
It's his very first acceptance slip and he can hardly believe it: "From the number one literary magazine in America. Never had the world looked so good, so full of promise." It's a very sweet moment but is countered later on in the book when he tries to get a job as a reporter with a Los Angeles newspaper. He fills out an application form and surprisingly gets a telephone call back from them:"Mr Chinaski?" "Yes?" "This is the Times Building." "Yes?" "We've reviewed your application and would like to employ you." "Reporter?" "No, maintenance man and janitor."
It's yet another depressing episode being added to the pile though coloured with a sense of humour to help swill the bitterness down.

Whilst employed at another rubbish job, he's called into the office one day by the boss of the company who is sat there with another man, both smoking expensive cigars.
"This is my friend, Carson Gentry," says the boss to Chinaski "Mr Gentry is a writer too. He is very interested in writing. I told him that you were a writer and he wanted to meet you. You don't mind, do you?"
"No I don't mind," Chinaski replies.
The two men both sit there looking at Chinaski as they smoke their cigars. Minutes pass. They inhale, exhale, and continue to look at him without saying a word.
"Do you mind if I leave?" Chinaski asks. "It's all right," says the boss.
Walking home later on, Chinaski ponders the difference between him and the two men smoking their cigars who have sat there looking at him in silence. "Were they that much more clever than I?" he wonders. He concludes the only difference is money, and the desire to accumulate it, along with the will to bleed and burn your fellow man and build an empire upon the broken bodies and lives of helpless men, women and children.

All that Chinaski wants is to be a writer, a problem being, however, that almost everybody thought they could be a writer too. Almost everybody used words and could write them down, meaning almost everybody could indeed be a writer if they chose to. Fortunately, Chinaski thinks to himself, most men aren't writers and some men - many men - unfortunately aren't anything at all.
His dream is realised in the end, of course, and Chinaski (Bukowski) over thirty years has thirty-two books of his poetry published, five books of his short stories, four novels, plus the screenplay to the film Barfly starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. Factotum too has been made into a film starring Matt Dillon (which is up on YouTube, as is Barfly).

Factotum is bleak, miserable and depressing though within its pages are glimmers of hope and rays of light and that's much better and much more than a lot of other books I could mention.
John Serpico

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Guilty Pleasures (Part 15)


The problem with someone (or something) like Psychic Sally is that she's an epitome of putting a dollar onto everything. It's a mindset of always thinking about how much money can be made from anything? What's its financial worth? How much can it be sold for? In Psychic Sally's case it's £24.50 per person, the cost of a ticket to get in to see her perform when her Call Me Psychic tour rolls into town. There's also Psychic Sally jewellery available alongside books, DVDs, greeting cards, bags, T-shirts and candles.

I understand how we all live in a capitalist society and that we've all got bills to pay so if you've got something to sell be it a certain skill or your labour, your time or your talent then you're inclined to use it so as to enable you to get by. Psychic Sally - or Sally Morgan, to give her her real name - uses her psychic powers.

Sally's a medium, communing with the dead and passing on messages from them to the living. I'm not interested in debating the truth of this because essentially, everyone is free to believe what they like and if anyone believes death is not the end then all power to them. It's their prerogative just as it's the prerogative of others to believe in what they wish be it reincarnation, angels, Heaven, Hell, or that dead is dead. Whatever gets you through the night.
No, the problem with what Psychic Sally does is her putting a monetary value on something that by its own definition stands beyond our earthly plain and therefore stands outside of any man-made system such as capitalism.

Is there nothing in this world that cannot be exploited? Is there nothing that can stand exempt of the profit motive and consumerism? It would appear not and that's why capitalism is so powerful and has been so successful as a system. It's this very strength, however, that is going to be its ultimate downfall because ultimately capitalism will exploit and consume itself.
Paradoxically, absolutely everything can also be exempt from being capitalised on and exploited but only if we so desire it. Regarding something like spiritualism and communing with the dead (because that's what we're talking about here) there are plenty of spiritualists and mediums out there who are happy and willing to provide their services for free. For nothing. Those who seek such services therefore have a choice to either go to those who are serious and are not wanting anything back in return, or to go to someone like Sally Morgan who say they are also serious but ask to be paid £24.50 for the privilege whilst putting tiny disclaimers at the bottom of their advertisements saying 'for the purpose of entertainment'.

So will I be going to see Psychic Sally at the Exmouth Pavilion? Will I fuck. Though I might just take a stroll down there on the night just to see what kind of people it is who are going. It would be funny though if it was cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances, wouldn't it?

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Writings And Drawings - Bob Dylan


Regarding Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature recently, the only question that needs to be asked is 'Why has it taken so long?'. You don't need to be a fan (and you don't need a weather man) to acknowledge the fact as Allen Ginsberg stated years ago that Dylan is the world's greatest living poet. Where's the argument in that?

Published in 1973, Writings And Drawings is a collection of Dylan's lyrics, sleeve notes and drawings dating from his very early songs, through all his albums from Freewheelin' in 1963 to New Morning in 1970. What's immediately apparent when reading it is how the lyrics stand up as poems in their own right rather than being just words to songs and of course, this is one of the reasons why he's been given the award.
There's an art to writing song lyrics and there's an art to writing poems, and it's actually not that often that the two forms are successfully combined to create a whole other. In respect of modern pop culture, Dylan was quite possibly the first to achieve this.

Throughout the book there are many classic songs and lines from songs, familiar if not by being sung by Dylan himself then being covered by other bands and artists: A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall - Bryan Ferry, Mr Tambourine Man - The Byrds, I'll keep It Mine - Nico, Quinn The Eskimo - Manfred Mann, This Wheel's On Fire - Julie Driscoll, Wanted Man - Johnny Cash, All Along The Watch Tower - Jimi Hendrix, etc, etc.
Dipping into the book at random you land upon such lines as this: "I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade. Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way. I promise to go under it." And this: "You've thrown the worst fear that can ever be hurled, fear to bring children into the world. For threatening my baby, unborn and unnamed, you ain't worth the blood that runs in your veins."
Andrew Motion eat your heart out.

Writings And Drawings isn't really a book to be read cover to cover but rather to browse through appreciatively. It looks good on a bookcase also, or on the side of your table desk, particularly as it's out of print now...

And whilst on the subject of Bob Dylan, for what it's worth his best album (in my opinion) is Desire, from 1976. I remember first hearing it years ago in Athens, in a Greek hostel, sitting in the communal area drinking a coffee before setting off to catch a boat to Crete. The track One More Cup Of Coffee was being played over the hostel's sound system and the words would resonate with me for years after: "One more cup of coffee for the road, one more cup of coffee 'fore I go - to the valley below."
I landed on Crete and I remember a hippy lady saying to me "You look like the man who fell to earth," meaning Thomas Jerome Newton as played by Bowie in the film. I was seventeen, my hair was dyed yellow and my head buzzing with Anarcho Punk ideas.
Icarus descending.

Any right-thinking acolyte of Dylan should own a copy of this book. I do - and I'm not even really a fan; Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen being more my preference. I appreciate good art when I see it though and Bob Dylan is nothing but an artist and Writings And Drawings nothing less than a very good art book.
John Serpico

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 37)


I love the world I love the world I love the world I love the world I love the world I love the world I love the world I love the world...

Monday, 31 October 2016

Siddartha - Hermann Hesse


Hermann Hesse goes into the Mystic and returns clutching a tale about searching for the only One. It's a divine light mission in the proper sense, once again mining themes familiar to all his works.
Essentially, all of Hesse's books are vehicles to convey his thoughts, his ideas and his beliefs; Siddartha being one of the most popular he's ever written. There's no real reason why it should be one of his best received books as there's nothing particularly unusual about it or anything that makes it particularly better than any of his others, though that's not to say it isn't any good, and in fact - it's very good indeed.

It's the story of a young man by the name of Siddartha, the son of a Brahmin, who leaves his family home to venture out into the world in a search for enlightenment. He spends a period of his life in absolute poverty, living in the woods with no roof over his head, no possessions and hardly any clothes to stand up in. A total ascetic.
From this period in his life he learns to think, wait and fast; though he comes to understand also that by continuing down this path of denial of all worldly matters he will still not attain Nirvana and a return to Godhead.

He gets to meet a living Buddha who many seekers after the Truth are following but sees that if he was to follow him too, still he would not become a living Buddha himself but would remain a disciple. He chooses instead to take a completely opposite path and throws himself headlong into the world of pleasure and material gain. After some years, however, he discovers that wealth is a ghetto leading ultimately to the extinguishing of the soul.

Where then might lay the answer? Battered and bruised by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and contemplating suicide, he rests by a river and it is here he has a revelation: 'The river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future.'
He sees his life also as a river where Siddartha the boy, Siddartha the mature man and Siddartha the old man are only separated by shadows, not through reality. He sees his previous lives were also not in the past, and his death and return to Brahma not in the future. 'Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence'.
So he becomes a ferryman, spending the remainder of his days learning from the river and listening to its many voices, which when heard in totality becomes just the one voice and the one word: Om.

Hesse concludes that there is such a thing as an Ultimate Truth but that there's no single path to it, and that it isn't anything that can actually be taught, only realised. Everyone must be allowed to live their own life and to follow their own path even if it might cause them harm, though with the proviso that it shouldn't cause harm to others.
Siddartha concludes that 'love is the most important thing in the world. It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect.'

Siddartha is a good book and Hermann Hesse was a very good storyteller. For further reading on the subjects he writes about here I'd recommend anyone to go to the primary sources, those being the Baghavad Gita and the Upanishads. For all that, however, Siddartha by Hermann Hesse is a good place to start.

John Serpico

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Wholly Communion


On the 11th of June 1965, 7000 people packed into the Royal Albert Hall in London for an evening of poetry. Hardly imaginable these days, of course: 7000 people? To hear some poems? It was, however, a pivotal event. An accidentally momentous occasion. Arguably, it was the moment when in Britain the Sixties began and British counterculture birthed.
The event was titled the International Poetry Reading and was organised by (among others) poet and film maker John Esam and artist Dan Richter. Coinciding with a visit to England by Allen Ginsberg, the idea was hatched to book for one evening the biggest venue in London so as to host him and to stage what was in effect, a Happening. So, just two weeks before the arrival of Ginsberg, the Albert Hall was booked, leaving very little time for publicity or for general organising.
The spontaneity of it all, however, acted as fuel to the rocket and within that short space not only had all the mainstream media (including, even, the bastion of the Establishment, the Times newspaper) been successfully approached and publicity garnered but a number of other internationally known poets and artists stepped up and offered their support, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Michael Horovitz, and Alexander Trocchi.

Come the evening, to the surprise of everyone (not least the organisers) 7000 people turned up; this being the largest audience ever assembled to hear poetry in the country. Flowers from nearby Covent Garden market were handed out to everyone on entry by girls with painted faces, whilst inside the Hall, the robot creations of artist Bruce Lacey whirled around as a recording of William Burroughs' dry, reptile voice crackled over a pall of pot smoke.
"I don't want that sort of filth here." said the Albert Hall's manager "Would you send your teenage daughter to hear that sort of thing?" But his was the voice of culture past and Allen Ginsberg et al were the voices of the future, the audience being the forward thinkers aware of something in the air signifying the times they were a-changin'.

Wholly Communion, published shortly after the event, is a mixture of photographs of the various poets performing there along with some of the poems they recited. Such was the significance of the event, however, that to capture and convey it is no easy task though it should be said the book doesn't purport this to be its aim. Rather, it's a snapshot or rather still, a version of the event. Just as film maker Peter Whitehead describes the documentary film he made of it (which is up on YouTube) , it's an "impression of a unique evening".
Up against some stiff competition, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem To Fuck Is To love Again stands out but the poet that steals the show is Adrian Mitchell, in particular with his poem To Whom It May Concern.

What the International Poetry Reading at the Royal Albert Hall (and subsequently the book, Wholly Communion) teaches us is that a small number of people when they come together to act, can achieve great things. Booking the biggest venue in London for a few poets to perform at was a case of taking the bull by the horns and simply going for it. They were probably daunted and no doubt scared but their enthusiasm and belief in what they were doing carried them through - and they won.

Up until that evening in June of 1965 there were all these thousands of people in their homes and communities, all isolated and unaware of each other's existence. The Poetry Reading brought them all together under one roof and showed there were others like them and that they were not alone. Inspired by this revelation all number of activities and ventures were launched, not least the publication of what was to become a leading voice of the British counterculture, the International Times newspaper.

And then there's the power and importance of the written and spoken word. The importance of poems, songs, books, magazines and any other medium that might carry words. The primacy of the words being the key. The medium not being the message but the words within and the message and meaning that those words convey. And then the imagination, the belief, and the courage to externalise those words into real life and into living action.
                                                                                                                                                                             John Serpico

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Beat Scene - Edited by Elias Wilentz


When you go to the music section of any bookshop nowadays you'll see any number of books detailing and documenting in photos the story of a plethora of bands, solo singers, musical events and scenes. It's an industry and it goes with the territory that where there are photos available there will one day be published a book of them; and long may it be so, I say, as it's a genre of books I quite enjoy.
The Internet has obviously had an effect on this once-cornered market of photo-documentary books, particularly platforms such as tumblr, which is a very good thing, I think. For all that, however, you still can't beat the physical medium of looking at photos in a book (or a magazine) as opposed to viewing them on a screen. And you never will.

Published in 1960, The Beat Scene is probably one of the first of this kind of book. Edited by Eliaz Wilentz, it documents as it says in the blurb on the back cover, 'the world of the young bohemian writers of New York's Greenwich Village'. To this end, it includes a large number of black and white photographs of all the poets of that time who whether by accident or design had picked up the mantel of 'Beatnik'. Alongside the photos there is also one poem from each of them plus essays from others describing the beat scene.

The photographs themselves capture a sense of something very fresh and exciting happening, particularly in those depicting the poets in full flow, reciting their poems to a rapt and attentive audience. All the usual suspects are here - Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky - but also a whole host of others that I'd never heard of before.
Regarding the poems themselves, two stand out: Playmates by Ted Jones, and Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; both for the simple reason of having a political edge to them. And being politicised - much to the chagrin of Jack Kerouac - was what gave the Beats an edge which without having would have left them as being just a bunch of would-be-poets writing about clouds and chasing butterflys with nets in the countryside.

The Beats, of course, begat the hippies and the hippies begat the punks; with the punks being the full-stop at the end of the exclamation mark. That's putting it very simply as there was obviously very many other factors and influences involved in the process but without the Beats there would never have been Punk and without Punk I wouldn't be the person I am today and I wouldn't be writing this and you, child, wouldn't be reading it.
As George Santayana once said: 'Those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it'.
John Serpico

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Guilty Pleasures (Part 14)


Purists might scoff but I'd bet my bottom dollar that Bowie himself would have approved of Bowie Experience. He was always an arbiter of good taste though, wasn't he? He raised the bar by being an early champion of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop (among others), though the slight problem that arose for him later on in his career was that he'd made such an impact upon pop culture that any band or artist of any merit would always have been influenced by him in one way or another, so the bands he later touted (such as Placebo, Arcade Fire, the Pixies even) were always cut from his own cloth.
So with this in mind it was bound to have eventually brought him round full circle to appreciating a tribute act to himself - the Bowie Experience.

Now that he's passed away, watching a tribute act to him is the closest we're going to get to experiencing him live. So will it be worth it? I hope so. The guy who impersonates him must be doing a good job of it for him to be touring the UK in what is actually quite decent-sized venues.
Of course, we've always got the records, the videos and the films of Bowie to help keep the flame alive; and of course, we've always got the bands and artists that were influenced by him. I'm thinking Momus here in particular for some reason.

I wonder if Bowie Experience will come on all loaded, man? Well hung and snow white tan?

Friday, 7 October 2016

Howl - Allen Ginsberg


Sitting watching the sun go down over Exmouth after reading Howl, I wondered what might have become of Allen Ginsberg had he not acquired world-wide fame as a poet? If Howl had not been picked up on and published by City Lights Books in 1956 and had it not caused such a scandal, would Ginsberg have remained working as a market researcher and kept his homosexuality a secret? Would he have followed his mother's advice to be good, to get married and to stay away from drugs? Would one of the world's greatest poems have gone undiscovered?

'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked...' And with those words a door was shut on the 1950s and a new one opened leading to the Sixties. Not just by themselves alone, of course, but without these words and the life pursuits of Allen Ginsberg the world wouldn't be quite the same as it is today.
The Fifties bawled and the Fifties screamed, stamping its feet like a petulant child saying "No, I won't! No, I won't! (The world) is mine! It's mine!" And in a fit of temper it lashed out at Howl - at words on a page - to try and make Ginsberg's poem go away. When it failed to do so, thanks to an Amendment called 'Freedom of expression', the Fifties sloped away and sulked, gnashing it's teeth and festering resentment.
Ginsberg and his friends stepped forward and into the sunlight of a new era where they said Yes! to freedom, Yes! to love, Yes! to peace, Yes! to drugs and - just as importantly - No! to Moloch.

'Holy! Holy! Holy!... Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman's an angel!' And a million young people agreed whilst J Edgar Hoover and his kind said "What the fuck?" and made plans to claw back the ground they had lost by the use of guns, cheap heroin and Cointelpro.

And here we all are today. Ginsberg's dead but so is Hoover, Nixon, Reagan and a whole host of others just like them. The same fight, however, continues in a myriad of different forms. La lotta continua. It's a never-ending tug-of-war between light and dark, love and hate, peace and war; an inch gained here and a mile lost there but through it all Howl stands as a shining example of the power of words. As a shining example of the importance of words and art in matters of changing the world. As proof positive that Ginsberg was (almost, though not entirely) on the side of the angels whilst Hoover and Nixon et al were on the side of... at best you could call it repression but at worst you could call it death.

For anyone who's never read Howl, I'd advise they do so - at least twice. Then rather than appeasing the forces of the conservative Right and their remorseless quest for the subordination of the human race; grow a beard, rumple your clothes, wear sandals, play a bongo drum, start listening to jazz, become sexually immoral and up your drug intake - if that's your bag. Either way, take heart from Ginsberg's poem - and indeed his life - and be inspired.
John Serpico

Monday, 26 September 2016

Guilty Pleasures (Part 13)


First off, The Real Me is a song by The Who from their Quadrophenia album but it's also the name of a three-piece band knocking out cover versions of Sixties songs in pubs, clubs and at festivals around the East Devon area. The Kinks, The Who, Small Faces, etc, etc, are all represented and delivered with aplomb.
When they recently played a free gig at the Exmouth Pavilion they did two sets, the first being their usual set of songs from the Sixties but for the second set they said they were going to try something a little different: A whole set of songs spanning the career of The Jam. And this is indeed what they did, delivering what was in effect a greatest hits show of Jam songs.
Pretty Green, Start, Strange Town, Thick As Thieves, In The City, David Watts, Eton Rifles, Down In the Tube Station At Midnight, Private Hell, When You're Young, even my own personal favourite A-Bomb In Wardour Street. They even did That's Entertainment and Butterfly Collector.
I was impressed. They were brilliant. They attacked the songs with energy, excitement, enthusiasm, and - importantly when it comes to The Jam - with aggression.

The song I came away with in my head at the end of the night, however, was Boy In The Bubble by Paul Simon; in particular the line "Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts."
You see, The Jam were one of the top bands of the late Seventies/early Eighties and when it came to mainstream musical culture they were one of the most important. They were always listed alongside other such classic bands as the Pistols, the Clash, the Damned and so on - and for very good reason. There was a time when they could do no wrong.

Whilst watching The Real Me I was thinking: If The Jam ever reformed with the original line-up they'd probably sell out the O2 Arena but would they be as good as The Real Me? I suspect not. So why wasn't the Exmouth Pavilion packed out with punters?
I'd say there were around 100 people there, a number of them obviously old fans of The Jam but a large number also looking as though they were just out for a typical Saturday night drink with a bit of music chucked in. Not that numbers count for much I know. As Anthony Wilson once said: "The smaller the attendance the bigger the history. There were 12 people at the Last Supper. Half a dozen at Kitty Hawk. Archimedes was on his own in the bath." But still.

These old Jam songs were once urban hymns. Urban folk songs that everybody knew. They electrified a generation. Their importance cannot be overstated. But then again, so once were the songs of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and so on and so forth. Nowadays all these bands and their songs are covered by tribute acts up and down the country, week in week out. So too the songs of The Jam. None of them, however, hold any of their original power and are no longer capable of transcending into the realm of having a social impact. All that's left nowadays is the music and the nostalgia which is fair enough but what made them so special in the first place has now gone.

Watching The Real Me was very enjoyable and I'd recommend people go and see them, particularly if they do the Jam set again as they were really good at it. Walking home afterwards, however, I got to wondering: What songs nowadays are having the same impact that Jam songs (for example) once had? Has everything that can be said or done with a song been said and done already? Is any new band playing original songs simply re-hashing for a new generation what has already been sung? And what exactly is any tribute band (such as The Real Me) bringing to the table?
The answer to that last question is that they obviously enjoy what they do but they also bring enjoyment to others (which is no mean feat) along with a certain kind of weirdness. And all tribute bands, I would argue, are inherently weird often without even knowing it and I don't mean that as a sleight. Weirdness makes the world go round. "You can't be weird in a strange town," said Paul Weller. But as Hunter S Thompson said: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn professional."

Was a time when I wanted all bands to be themselves, to be original and to sing their own songs. Nowadays, however, I'm not sure if that's so important. The world has changed. What does it matter if a band sing their own songs if those songs are unoriginal? Nowadays it's no longer songs that have the power to transcend into the realm of making a social impact but the weirdness itself of the bands themselves. In particular the weirdness of tribute bands such as, for example, The Real Me.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Adventures Of A Young Man - John Reed


It was John Reed who wrote Ten Days That Shook The World, the account of the Russian revolution that was turned into a film - Reds - directed by Warren Beatty and starring himself alongside Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson.
Adventures Of A Young Man is a collection of Reed's short stories written between 1912 and 1917 though not published until 1963 and then by a European publishing house. The copy that's fallen into my hands is a reprint by City Lights Books, published in 1975 - the first time these writings were published in America.
The significance of this is highlighted in the introduction taken from the original 1963 pressing where it says: 'Such stories as appear in this volume have been quietly and effectively suppressed'. The fact that only City Lights led by Lawrence Ferlinghetti chose to reprint these stories tells us something - though whether it's confirmation that yes, these stories were up til then 'quietly and effectively suppressed' I'm not sure. It could well be true?

Reed's an interesting character. He was born to rich parents in Portland, Oregon in 1887 and ended up going to Harvard. He knew that what he wanted to do was to write but he knew also that to be a successful writer he might require a more worldly experience. Rather than fiction, he was more interested in the real world so he ventured out to explore it and to report back.
He ended up as a news correspondent in the Mexican War of 1916 where he rode with Pancho Villa before heading off to Europe for the First World War; a job that took him to Petrograd, the Russian revolution and ten days that shook the world.
Before all of this, however, it was the streets of New York where he would roam searching for material which he found in plentiful supply in the form of people - primarily poor, working class people: 'In my rambles about the city,' he wrote 'I couldn't help but observe the ugliness of poverty and all its train of evil, the cruel inequality between rich people who had too many motor cars and poor people who didn't have enough to eat. It didn't come to me from books that the workers produced all the wealth of the world, which went to those who did not earn it.'

Reed's encounters with the denizens of New York are what makes up the bulk of these stories and what's good about them is that he allows his characters to speak for themselves. Essentially, he simply records their monologues. So, we get street girls telling us of their lives, along with tales from the homeless, the poor, the unfortunate, the sick, and the starving. One of the best of these is a story entitled Another Case Of Ingratitude, in which Reed stumbles upon a tramp whilst out walking one night on Fifth Avenue.
'What's the matter - sick?' Reed asks.
'No sleep for two nights,' replies the tramp 'Nothing to eat for three days.'
Reed takes the tramp to a restaurant and gets him fed and after the meal asks him a few questions: 'No work? What's your job? Where do you come from? Been here long?'
The tramp objects to being questioned to which Reed replies he was only asking to make conversation.
'Naw, you wasn't,' says the tramp 'You t'ought because you give me a hand-out, I'd do a sob story all over you. Wot right have you got to ask me all them questions? I know you fellers. Just because you got money you t'ink you can buy me with a meal...'
Reed views him as being and declares him to be ungrateful but there's obviously more to it than that. It's hard to tell whether Reed is aware of it or not and whether it's by accident or design but the story speaks volumes about dignity, pride, equality, and the chasm between the rich and the poor. It's an echo, in fact, of Baudelaire's prose piece Let's Beat Up The Poor! in which rather than giving money to a beggar Baudelaire beats one up instead. The beggar fights back until Baudelaire stops the fight declaring the beggar to now be his equal, therefore restoring the beggar's pride and dignity.

In another story, entitled The Thing To Do, Reed encounters a Cambridge-educated Englishman who is on his way back to England to join the army so as to fight in the Great War. As with the tramp in the restaurant story, Reed tries to engage in conversation with him, seeking among other things, his views on revolution and war, only to be left perplexed by his answers: 'Revolutions occur only when a people is oppressed,' the Englishman says 'And British working men are not oppressed. They are paid excellently for persons of their class...'
And as for his reason for going to war: 'I fight because my people have always been army people.'
They both soon part ways, leaving Reed with a thought: 'I had a momentary, guilty idea that perhaps the spirit that conquered India was the same which would wade through fire and blood to get a cold bath in the morning - because it was the Thing to Do.'

The overall picture that is painted by these short stories is that the world is in need of change. Reed was rightly contemptuous of the rich, ruling elites of America based, I suspect, on his experience of them and their sons at Harvard. Likewise, however, the rich, ruling elites and their sons were equally contemptuous of Reed.
It was among the working class that Reed discovered the most virtuous of men and women, particularly among those involved in political struggle and industrial disputes. Not that he erred towards viewing the working class romantically at all as evidenced by some of the stories where he allows working men to tell their tales but in doing so damning themselves utterly with their stupidity, racism, and blind acceptance of and allegiance to the status quo.

Reed's involvement with the Bread and Roses strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts involving immigrant textile workers brought home to him the knowledge that 'the manufacturers get all they can out of labor, pay as little as they must, and permit the existence of great masses of the miserably unemployed in order to keep wages down; that the forces of the State are on the side of property against the propertyless.'
In Reed's essay Almost Thirty, an assessment of himself looking back over the years in which most of his short stories were written, he wrote: 'I have seen and reported many strikes, most of them desperate struggles for the bare necessities of life; and all I have witnessed only confirms my first idea of the class struggle and its inevitability. I wish with all my heart that the proletariat would rise and take their rights - I don't see how else they will get them. Political relief is so slow to come, and year by year the opportunities of peaceful protest and lawful action are curtailed. But I am not sure any more that the working class is capable of revolution, peaceful or otherwise; the workers are so divided and bitterly hostile to each other, so badly led, so blind to their class interest.'
Months later in Russia, the October Revolution and the storming of the Winter Palace would take place, out of which Reed would write Ten Days That Shook The World. Three years later he would die of typhus and be buried near the Kremlin Wall, a hero of the Russian revolution.

Looking back on the life of John Reed now, we can see how he and the Russian revolution itself was betrayed by the failure of the totalitarian State to wither away as it was meant to. In this same light he may now be viewed as the sailors of Kronstadt are now viewed - as the pride and flower of the revolution brought to heel for wanting to carry the revolution through to its ultimate conclusion - and that's a fine accolade to bestow upon anyone.
Adventures Of A Young Man. 'Quietly and effectively suppressed'? It could well be true.
John Serpico

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

New York Rocker - Gary Valentine


Gary Valentine was the bass player in Blondie but it's forgiveable if anyone doesn't know that because at the time all the attention, of course, was upon Debbie Harry. He played with them from 1975 until 1977 and was responsible for writing the Blondie songs X-Offender and (quite possibly their best song) I'm Always Touched By Your Presence, Dear. On leaving Blondie, he formed his own band called The Know before going on to play for Iggy Pop. He's nowadays an established writer with a number of books to his name, focussing upon the esoteric and the mystical.
All well and good but why might this make for a good memoir? Well, it's because of the period and the place that he writes about, that being New York City from the early to late 1970s.

In the film Taxi Driver, Robert DeNiro's Travis Bickle character famously declares: "All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Some day a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets." Indeed, a rain did eventually come but in the unexpected form of 'gentrification', arguably heralded by NYC mayor Rudi Giuliani's 'zero tolerance' policies. New York is nowadays undoubtedly a much safer city but something has been lost in the process and it's this 'something' that Gary Valentine writes about in his book New York Rocker.

He makes for a good guide as he takes us by the hand and leads us through the streets of Lower Manhattan, through the degeneracy, the grime, the decadence, the art, the beauty, the poverty and the poetry. There's nothing poetic about poverty, of course, but poetry can be born from it and much better poetry than that born from cloistered privilege, I would argue. This is where Gary Valentine comes in.

At the age of 18 he had read Baudelaire's Flowers Of Evil and it may well have been this that enabled him to recognise the beauty of Richard Hell in torn clothes, spiky hair and safety pins. It would have enabled him to know who Tom Verlaine had named himself after and who Patti Smith was referring to when she chanted "Go Rimbaud".
New York was the cradle of Punk. There's no debate to be had about that is there? In Gary Valentine's eyes it began with the New York Dolls who themselves had been informed by (among others) Iggy Pop. They were the proof positive that you didn't have to be Eric Clapton to play guitar; rather, you just needed balls. And in their eye-liner, lipstick, platform shoes, mascara, nail polish and bouffant hair the Dolls had balls-a-plenty.
They were the green light for others to go for it including most famously - via Malcolm McLaren - the Sex Pistols. It was New York City, however, that provided the conditions for the disparate elements of the nascent Punk scene to converge, with a decrepit and run-down bar by the name of CBGB on the Lower East Side being the epicentre.

Gary Valentine joins the dots and paints a vivid picture of all the groups, the individuals and the circumstances that led to the creation of a world-wide phenomenon - and by that I mean Punk, not Blondie - as seen through his eyes and personal experiences.
The New York Dolls, Wayne County, Suicide, Dead Boys, Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, Heartbreakers, Talking Heads, and of course, Blondie. They're all here though just as much attention and importance is paid to the venues, the streets and the countless non-music business related individuals than it is to the bands.

Interestingly, Gary cites the arrival of the Dictators and the Dead Boys as the first sign of the end of the New York Punk scene; the shades of Rimbaud being eliminated by right-wing sensibilities and the sole aim of getting fucked up and acting stupid. The second nail in the coffin is the departure of Richard Hell from the Heartbreakers, signifying the end of the 'art rock' union that had started with Patti Smith and Television. The final nail being the arrival of skinhead crowds from the suburbs and beach towns, turning gigs into mob violence to a 4/4 beat and turning Rimbaud into Rambo.
For Gary, this is where the New York scene ends and his interest in it drops though not before acknowledging that what had started in the Bowery amidst desperation and poverty had now gone world-wide.

I tend to agree with Gary's analysis to a point. By 1979 Punk was indeed a dieing star though still with a huge swathe of people orbiting around it. From its initial explosion, a thousand sparks and streamers had been shot into the sky and these were still descending, acting as seeds from which fresh fruit would be born. For sure, Punk had attracted moronic behaviour and mindless violence but that was just one aspect of its multi-faceted presence. For many, Punk was still a vision of creativity and potential.

As any first-hand witness should, Gary brings to the table a wealth of anecdotes, many of which are highly amusing. He describes going to watch a play called Women Behind Bars in which his girlfriend was starring alongside Divine. The drawback being that his girlfriend is naked on stage and is raped by Divine with a broom handle twice nightly to a packed house. Four times with matinees. Within a few weeks practically everyone he knows has seen his girlfriend naked. Twice.
He highlights the song Final Solution by Pere Ubu as being 'one of the classics of the time' - and I think he might be right. He regales us with a tale of Johnny Ramone chasing Malcolm McLaren out of a Ramones gig, brandishing his guitar like an axe. He tells us of making a faux pas by introducing McLaren to a friend as Malcolm McDowell. He tells us the song Ask The Angels by Patti Smith is about qualludes - though I'm not sure if that's really true. He informs us of Debbie Harry's penchant for the drug angel dust, of her large collection of French S&M magazines, and how - according to Timothy Leary - she was once a member of Leary's acid community at Castalia in the Sixties.
He lets us know the line "Are we not men?" by Devo is taken from the 1930s film of HG Wells' novel The Island Of Doctor Moreau. I didn't know that. He likens touring with Iggy Pop to being in the rock'n'roll Wild Bunch - as in the Sam Peckinpah film. He damns Captain Sensible for spitting at his girlfriend during a radio interview (and so he should) and suggests the Damned are another nail in Punk's coffin. And he tells us of his meeting with Duran Duran where one of them was into body building and 'smart drugs' - vitamins and non-narcotic concoctions which supposedly increased intelligence. 'I don't know if they worked,' he remarks with a typical dry wit.

New York Rocker is an entertaining and informative read, worth the effort alone for the insights into Iggy Pop's touring habits and states of mind. How is Iggy still alive? The ending of the book isn't very satisfactory, however, as it cuts off suddenly with Gary being kicked out of the Blondie reunion of 1997; leaving him broke, living in a bedsit in London and to keep warm, hunting for firewood on Hampstead Heath.
His circumstances have changed since then by the sound of it but even if he's still not nowadays rich materially, he's rich in experiences of the kind that are never going to happen again. Experiences of the kind that for all the money in the world, you couldn't buy. The process of gentrification sealing the coffin for good and ensuring that such circumstances can never be repeated.
John Serpico