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  

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Exmouth Bound Soundtrack (Part 8)


Don't you want to know how we keep starting fires?

Up and down the Avocet rail line, in and out of Exmouth, day in day out. And sometimes on a morning on the outbound train - I kid you not - the atmosphere is electric. You could cut it with a knife.

The coaches can practically throb with barely-disguised and barely-contained lust, desire and psychosexual tension. No-one really wants to talk about it or advertise the fact as the train can get busy enough as it is without the world and its mother descending upon Exmouth to experience the delights of the morning rush hour but... the lingering looks, the furtive glances, the double entendres, the knowing smiles, the pursing of lips, the greasepaint and the powder, the sound of leather on willow, the danger, the high voltage...
It's palpable.

Up and down the Avocet rail line, in and out of Exmouth, day in day out...