Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Touching From A Distance - Deborah Curtis


I met Brian Eno whilst in Amsterdam as he has an apartment and studio there. I didn't actually realise it was him at first until we began chatting and then when I did realise who he was, rather than talking about Roxy Music, U2 or whoever, I got him onto the subject of the band called The Winkies that he worked with between leaving Roxy Music and releasing his first solo album.
I showed him that I had some of their songs from their John Peel session on my i-Pod and I suspect that's what made him take a liking (or pity?) to me. For some reason he asked if I'd seen Control, the film about Joy Division as directed by Anton Corbijn that had just been released? I hadn't and he advised I should, informing me that it was good and highlighting the fact that the actors all play the instruments themselves. I took his advice and watched it soon after and, of course, he wasn't wrong and it's a very good film indeed.
Years later and I've finally got round to reading Touching From A Distance by Deborah Curtis, the book on which the film is based and I'm left thinking: Am I the only one who reads it as a damning indictment of Ian Curtis, Joy Division, and Tony Wilson?

Deborah Curtis is, of course, the widow of Ian Curtis and in her book she not only shatters the myth of Joy Division but she destroys it utterly. In my eyes at least, if not in others. How can anyone ever again listen to Joy Division in the same way after telling us Ian 'voted Conservative as he always would do. He argued that as his wife I had to vote the same way, otherwise I would cancel his vote!'
It's not as if she's revealing that actually Joy Division weren't just playing with Nazi imagery and that they really were in fact outright Fascists but honestly, what was he thinking? What was his reasoning? Should I be surprised? I understand how the Conservatives picked up a lot of working class votes at that time (and always have done) but I'd have thought Ian Curtis might have known better? And to force his wife to vote the same as him? There's a lot of other tales that Deborah relays that are equally cringeworthy but that one for me takes the biscuit. Ian Curtis was a young Conservative. A fucking Tory!

I never picked up on things like this in Corbijn's film (if they were there at all?) but maybe that's because the Joy Division myth is so powerful that it eclipses anything else? In her book, Deborah certainly confirms such things as the importance of the Sex Pistols playing at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester: 'As if being summoned to a religious gathering' as she puts it 'After the performance everyone seemed to move quickly towards the door. It seemed as if we had all been issued with instructions and now we were set to embark on a mission.'
And then there's the smaller details such as Ian Curtis confronting Tony Wilson in a bid to get Joy Division on television: 'You're a fucking cunt you are, you're a bastard' Ian tells Wilson. 'Oh yeah,' replies Wilson 'Why's that?' 'Cause you haven't put us on television,' Ian tells him. It's the stuff of legend.
But then there's other things like Ian expecting his evening meal to be ready when he came home from work, or details such as Ian's penchant for curling up in a ball and whimpering whenever he was frightened or couldn't cope with something. Was his suicide his ultimate curling up in a ball, I wonder?

Joy Division were a construct. A fabricated story of existential despair glossing over the real story of four northern lads acting like lads before the concept of 'ladism' was ever thought of and sold as 'lad culture' by the likes of Loaded magazine.
They were the result of an unspoken collusion between photographer Kevin Cummins and his images of the band in snowy Manchester city landscapes, the production genius of Martin Hannett, the bombastic prose of Paul Morley, and the myth-feeding acumen of Tony Wilson. A few years later the same trick was repeated with Frankie Goes To Hollywood but this time with Paul Morley teaming up with Trevor Horn to paint a veil of in-your-face gay gloss over pedestrian electronica pumped up to stadium rock proportions.
Joy Division were the Frankie Goes To Hollywood of their generation and Frankie Goes To Hollywood were the Joy Division of theirs. The difference being that Holly Johnson never killed himself.

Touching From A Distance should have been the stake through the heart of the Joy Division myth as it totally shatters and destroys it but instead, via the turning of it into a film by Anton Corbijn the myth was rejuvenated and even somewhat cemented. At the end of the day, as Brian Eno said, it's a good film but in hindsight, after reading Deborah Curtis's book, it also accentuates and lends weight to Tony Wilson's much-quoted mantra of "When you have to choose between truth and legend.... print the legend."
John Serpico

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

The Doors Of Perception - Aldous Huxley


It's been a few years since I last read The Doors Of Perception and Heaven And Hell by Aldous Huxley. A lot of water has since passed under the bridge and a lot of drugs consumed, I should declare. I'm not proud. I've not sampled every type of drug in the world, far from it, but I've done a fair share of them. But then haven't we all? It's like the scene in The Rutles movie where Dirk is being interviewed and he admits “It's the truth, I have had tea. Lots of tea. Indian tea. And biscuits.” For all that, nowadays the subject of drugs is old hat it seems, and you're considered weird if you've never imbibed. As Hunter S Thompson once wrote: 'When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.'
So where does this leave Aldous Huxley? Well, don't worry, he's still a person of interest and his observations regarding his experiences with mescaline are still noteworthy.

Huxley's first trip in 1953, for example, where he becomes fascinated by a vase of flowers, a chair leg and the fold in his trousers still makes for very good observations not only on the effects of mescaline but also on art. When highlighting the sense of 'an obscure knowledge that All is in all and that All is actually each', or 'the perception of everything that is happening everywhere in the universe', Huxley points out that the same perception can be recognised in paintings by Van Gogh, Botticelli, and Vermeer. And I'd tend to agree.

What Huxley says about mescaline heightening the perception of colour is true but also of interest is what he says about man's ability to recognise colours being unnecessary to his survival as an animal. According to Huxley, man's highly developed colour sense is a biological luxury. To which I would argue against. If the world is viewed as black and white then surely this is being reductive? There is beauty and value to be found in images of black and white, for sure, but to see the world in blazing technicolour leads to an enhancement and to a greater understanding of it, does it not? And greater understanding of the world should lead to greater chances of surviving in it – as a species – should it not? Reducing the world to black and white means reduced awareness. Reduced awareness means not only a lack of a sense of beauty but also of danger.

It's a conundrum. If the world, as Huxley writes, is the universe of reduced awareness then why is there an innate yearning in us for a better world? Why is there a desire to escape – for escapism - to improve, to create? If reduced awareness is a prerequisite for our survival then why have we not remained living in caves? Why is there such a thing as 'art'? All we really need to survive is food, water, and heat – and to be able to reproduce. The same as any other living thing. Why the desire and the need in man to create? Why is there art? Ultimately, what good does it do us?

Huxley wrestles with these questions himself but finds no answer. 'This is how one ought to see, how things really are,' he tells himself during his mescaline experience. To always be able to see Infinity in a flower. But if that was the case you'd never want to do anything else because just looking and being would be enough, he realises. But what about other people? What about human relations? What about the ordinary? How do you function in a world where ordinary concerns, moral judgements, the concept of time, of selves, of cocksureness, of over-valued words and notions are an irrelevance?

The end lesson that Huxley gains from his mescaline experiment is that 'the man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out.' But even this is a million-dollar question because ultimately, how do we know? Viewed both subjectively and objectively, how can we know?

As I said, nowadays the subject of drugs is old hat it seems, but so too are the concerns as raised by Huxley in his book. Does it matter? Does Huxley's questions count for anything these days? If not, then why might this be? Have Huxley's questions all been answered? Have we all moved on? That, again, is just another million-dollar question...
John Serpico

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Rosshalde - Hermann Hesse


I've made it my mission to plough through the complete works of Hermann Hesse. Well, you only live once. Hermann who, you might ask? Ah, it doesn't matter, I reply.
First published in 1914, Rosshalde is perhaps one of Hesse's lesser known books and though not as powerful as some of his others such as Steppenwolf or Journey To The East, it still packs an emotional and intellectual punch. On reading it, my immediate thought is that it reads like an Ingmar Bergman film. Meaning, it's soul-searching, desolate and bleak but in the end wholly uplifting and resolutely deep with meaning.

Rosshalde is the name of the house where an estranged family live out their somewhat dysfunctional lives. Dysfunctional, that is, in terms of happiness. The father is an artist who lives in an out-house in the grounds of the estate while his wife lives in their mansion house, devoutly caring for their son. Their other elder son lives away at University and only comes home during holidays.
Between the father and his wife there is little communication; between the father and the elder son there is not only little communication but open hostility. The only real link between them all is the younger son, whom they all love.

From this toxic situation, however, the father produces great and internationally acclaimed art but at what price? Must the source of great art hung on the walls of the rich always have to be wrung from the anguish and sadness of the artist?
The visit of a friend from the Far East punctures the sterility of the father's life and suggests a solution: To step out into the world and away from seclusion, isolation and self-imposed unhappiness. To embrace the world. To join him in the Far East to live a fuller life, enjoying the beauty and wonder of nature and to capture it in art.

Here then is the theme familiar to many of Hesse's books, that of the question as whether to live one's life in contemplation or to throw one's self into the maelstrom of the world. The father takes heed of his friend's suggestion and decides to abandon his so-called 'family life' and head off to the Far East for a year or so, leaving it open as to whether he might ever return. This decision is arrived at after much soul-searching but rather than running away from his responsibilities he is instead facing up to everything and walking away – and right there is the big difference.
For all that, before he is able to leave tragedy occurs when his younger son is struck down with meningitis and dies. The book ends with the father about to set out on his new life, poorer and indelibly wounded by the death of his son but determined now not to waste or lose a precious hour of his life again.

Rosshalde is a classic depiction of an Apollonian and Dionysian tragedy where light clashes with dark and the real clashes with the illusory. The key is in the joining of the two opposites and that is what the father in setting off for the Far East is going for: To complete himself by living a fuller life but through contemplation still being creative – in his case, to continue to paint.

A point of interest in the story is Hesse's use of metaphor. It's the arrival of his friend from the Far East that prompts and instigates the father's epiphany but clearly this is just a way of representing the advent of what essentially is a moment of revelation, which could actually have been brought about by any number of other things. 
Hesse, in this particular story, represents it as a visit of a friend from the Far East but just as easily it could have been represented by the reading of a book, the hearing of a song, the viewing of a picture, an unplanned incident, an unexpected interruption, or even the imbibing of a drug. Which brings us neatly to Timothy Leary's supposition that Hesse may have been experimenting with psychedelic drugs and that his flashes of inspiration were being derived from this.
You can see where Leary's coming from because Hesse's moments of perception are somewhat similar to the moments of clarity that can be brought about by LSD. Aldous Huxley would have vouched for this. Apart from the books themselves, however, there is no evidence to support Leary's suggestion, which is actually quite good to know. It tells us that rather than being drug-induced, Hesse's ideas, visions and insights are all natural, which makes for even greater respect for him. Which makes for his books to be more likeable, more engaging and – interestingly – more real.
John Serpico

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The Buddha Of Suburbia - Hanif Kureishi


I presume everybody's read Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha Of Suburbia by now? At one time it seemed to be everywhere you turned: book shops, charity shops, haberdasheries, dentist waiting rooms. It was ubiquitous. There's no need, then, to go into any detail about it here as we all know what it's about if not by reading it then by having watched the TV adaptation. I would say this though: The Buddha Of Suburbia contains one of the best descriptions about encountering Punk Rock for the first time that I've ever read.

The character of Charlie Hero, Karim's friend who ends up as a rock star in America, is presumably based on Billy Idol? Kureishi grew up in Bromley, in South London, so would have been familiar with the Bromley contingent, the early followers of the Sex Pistols who went on to form Siouxsie And The Banshees or became acolytes of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.
In the book, Karim and Charlie go to the Nashville one night and it's there that their encounter with Punk Rock takes place. It's worth repeating:
'… at the front of the place, near the stage, there were about thirty kids in ripped black clothes. And the clothes were full of safety pins. Their hair was uniformly black, and cut short, seriously short, or if long it was spiky and rigid, sticking up and out and sideways, like a handful of needles, rather than hanging down. A hurricane would not have dislodged those styles. The girls were in rubber and leather and wore skin-tight skirts and holed black stockings, with white face-slap and bright-red lipstick. They snarled and bit people. Accompanying these kids were what appeared to be three extravagant South American transvestites in dresses, rouge and lipstick, one of whom had a used tampon on a piece of string around her neck. Charlie stirred restlessly as he leaned there. He hugged himself in self-pity as we took in this alien race dressed with an abandonment and originality we'd never imagined possible. I began to understand what London meant and what class of outrage we had to deal with. It certainly put us in proportion.
What is this shit?” Charlie said. He was dismissive, but he was slightly breathless too, there was awe in his voice.
And look at the stage,” Charlie said. “What rubbish is this? Why have you brought me out for this?”
D'you wanna go, then?”
Yes. All this is making me feel sick.”
OK,” I said “Lean on my shoulder and we'll get you out of here. I don't like the look of it either. It's too weird.”
Yeah, much too weird.”
It's too much.”
But before we could move the band shambled on, young kids in clothes similar to the audience. The fans suddenly started to bounce up and down. As they pumped into the air and threw themselves sideways they screamed and spat at the band until the singer, a skinny little kid with carroty hair, dripped with saliva. He seemed to expect this, and merely abused the audience back, spitting at them, skidding over on to his arse once, and drinking and slouching around the stage as if he were in his living room. His purpose was not to be charismatic, he would be himself in whatever mundane way it took. The little kid wanted to be an anti-star, and I couldn't take my eyes off him. It must have been worse for Charlie.
He's an idiot,” Charlie said.
And I bet they can't play either. Look at those instruments. Where did they get them, a jumble sale?”
Right,” I said.
Unprofessional,” he said.
When the shambolic group finally started up, the music was thrashed out. It was more aggressive than anything I'd heard since early Who. This was no peace and love; here were no drum solos or effeminate synthesizers. Not a squeeze of anything 'progressive' or 'experimental' came from these pallid, vicious little council estate kids with hedgehog hair, howling about anarchy and hatred. No song lasted more than three minutes, and after each the carrot-haired kid cursed us to death. He seemed to be yelling directly at Charlie and me. I could feel Charlie getting tense beside me. I knew London was killing us as I heard “Fuck off, all you smelly old hippies! You fucking slags! You ugly fart-breaths! Fuck off to hell!” he shouted at us.
I didn't look at Charlie again, until the end. As the lights came up I saw he was standing up straight and alert, with cubes of dried vomit decorating his cheeks.
Let's go,” I said.
We were numb; we didn't want to speak for fear of returning to our banal selves again. The wild kids bundled out. Charlie and I elbowed our way through the crowd. Then he stopped.
What is it, Charlie?”
I've got to get backstage and talk to those guys.”
I snorted. “Why would they want to talk to you?”
I thought he'd hit me, but he took it well.
Yeah, there's no reason why they should like me,” he said. “If I saw me coming into the dressing room I'd have myself kicked out.”
Charlie was excited. “That's it, that's it,” he said as we strolled. “That's fucking it.” His voice was squeaky with rapture. “The sixties have been given notice tonight. Those kids we saw have assassinated all hope. They're the fucking future.”'

Of course, Kureishi's description is full of clichés but then wasn't Punk a re-imagining of clichés? Wasn't this the canvas scratched and vandalised for it to have new visions scrawled upon it? Punk Rock and all its Year Zero declarations, ethics and mores was cliche-ridden to the max though the big difference was that the Punk prophets didn't care. And by Punk prophets I mean not just those in bands but even more so those in the actual audience.
Kureishi's description captures a moment in time that doesn't happen that often. William Burroughs described it as a 'naked lunch', a frozen moment when you see what is on the end of the fork. William Blake described it as 'illumination'. Sartre described it as 'nausea'. Kureishi's description captures nothing less than a moment of revelation.

The only other part of The Buddha Of Suburbia worth highlighting is when Karim and his girlfriend Eleanor are at the home of the radical theatre director Pyke and his wife Marlene, and they're about to have an orgy:
'Marlene fell back on to the couch, naked, with her legs open.
There's so much we can do tonight!” she cried. “There's hours and hours of total pleasure ahead of us. We can do whatever we want. We've only just begun. Let me freshen our drinks and we'll get down to it. Now, Karim, I want you to put some ice up my cunt. Would you mind going to the fridge?”'
Punk Rock and kinky sex. Is that all we're really interested in? Are we just perverted? Should we be seeking help of the psychiatric kind? Or is that just me?
Let's just blame it on Hanif Kureishi, shall we?
John Serpico