Saturday, 4 November 2017

Heroes and Villains: Influence and Serendipity: And Pencils...

"That I know nothing, that the world I live in will go on escaping me forever."
Paul Auster

How we miss our lives is life enough for most of us.
Opportunities abound but we're mostly looking the other way.
Sometimes we need other folk to point out what we are missing.
Some things are worth sharing, if only for the civility of sharing.
Sometimes we reach out to connect.
Sometimes we reach out to see if others are feeling as disconnected as we are.
Sometime we are disappointed not to make an expected connection.
Sometimes unexpected connections can amaze and astound.
Hazard.
Chance.
Serendipity.
Different names for the same hat.

This morning I was lying in the bath, with Spotify playing randomly from the world's vast library of music, reading Paul Auster. Auster is one of my favorite writers. Besides his novels he also writes beautifully about his life: the things that have led him to where he now abides. 'The Red Notebook' is a slight thing, chock full of anecdotes, small moments, minutiae that most of us would pass over, let alone write about. His non fiction hints at what inspires the writer: in Auster's case primarily memory, identity and chance. They say that stories cannot exist without storytellers and that stories will not endure unless they are well told. Auster is a fine story teller whose elegant prose can make the most mundane moments resonate. Auster's words will endure. 

"I learned that books are never finished, that it is possible for stories to go on writing themselves without an author.” 

Anyway... back in the bath:
Much of 'The Red Notebook' recognizes the potency of coincidence. There are moments of serendipity, missed chances and close shaves. All cleverly catalogued without any conclusions drawn other than a 'what are the chances?' shrug. Auster tells of how during all four flat tires of his life he had the same passenger in the car with him. He tells of Ralph, the boy who got struck and killed by a lightning bolt that was surely destined for Auster. I got to the last chapter of the book entitled 'Why I Write'. It concludes with this story: An 8 year old Paul Auster met his hero, baseball player Willie Mays. The young Auster shyly asked Mays for his autograph. Mays replied "Sure kid, sure. You got a pencil?" Auster continues:

"The great Willie Mays stood there watching in silence. When it became clear that no one in the group had anything to write with, he turned to me and shrugged. “Sorry, kid,” he said. “Ain’t got no pencil, can’t give no autograph.” And then he walked out of the ballpark into the night.
After that night, I started carrying a pencil with me wherever I went. It became a habit of mine never to leave the house without making sure I had a pencil in my pocket. It’s not that I had any particular plans for that pencil, but I didn’t want to be unprepared. I had been caught empty-handed once, and I wasn’t about to let it happen again.
If nothing else, the years have taught me this: if there’s a pencil in your pocket, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll feel tempted to start using it.
As I like to tell my children, that’s how I became a writer."

As I read this story Spotify played Joe Henry's 'Our Song'. 
It tells of the narrator coming across... you guessed it: Willie Mays.
What are the chances?

“I saw Willie Mays
In a Scottsdale Home Depot
Looking at garage door springs
At the far end of the fourteenth row.”

Rather than asking for an autograph he listens in to Mays talking despondantly to his wife:

This was my country
This was my song
Somewhere in the middle there
It started badly and it’s ending wrong

This was my country
This frightful and this angry land
But it’s my right if the worst of it
Might somehow make me a better man.

Another story of disappointment then, this time from the mouth of the All American Hero himself. 
Interestingly the reason I was in the bath was to get away from the radio: specifically the clatter and clutter of the news: more graceless guff from anti-hero Trump, Stateside. So, not just the coincidence of two disparate stories colliding, with the same baseball hero (and featuring similar subject matter), but also... those lines written in 2007, pre-echoing the current disappointment, embarrassment, shame and fear at the face on the American coin: something articulated everyday by so many of my American friends: they surely deserve a better man...
As 'Our Song' concludes, the narrator casts doubt on himself.

That was him,
I’m almost sure,
The greatest centerfielder
Of all time.

He’s just like us,
I want to tell him,
Stooped by the burden of endless dreams,
His, and yours, and mine
.

"Stooped by the burden of endless dreams, his and yours and mine"
Now there's a sagely inclusive line: a timely reminder to our leaders that they shoulder our hopes.
It made me jump out of the bath and reach for this virtual pencil.
If you can, get hold of a copy of 'The Red Notebook', and then run yourself a bath.
Then put Spotify on 'random' and, you never know, as you get to the last chapter, you might just get struck by lightning, or... if you're lucky 'Our Song' might come on. 
It really is Our song: his and yours and mine.
May that moment come to you in brighter times: a time when the most powerful man in the world is not a narcissistic surface feeder, but a deep thinker with broad shoulders, emotional intelligence and a social conscience: A compassionate leader with a plan and a pencil in his hand.
Hopefully a hero: or at least a better man.
What are the chances?






Friday, 3 November 2017

Lovesong: Talk-Show: Permanent Honeymoon


I love this. Talk-Show is songwriter Lawrence O'Shea. The offerings are a fascinating melange of troubadour song-smithery and 70's influenced pop. I hear T. Rex sipping (slightly out of date) cocktails with James Taylor and Macca. It's a heady, tasty, out of time capsule that is oddly compelling. Melody is the master but there's a vibrant buoyancy that reminds me of Boo Hewerdine's latest offering 'Swimming in Mercury'. No surprise then to see that Boo is listed as 'Executive Producer' and appears on one of the tracks. The sonics are dynamic and compelling: kudos to the recording and mixing talents of Chris Pepper who also twiddled Boo's knobs on the aforementioned... Another star of the Talk-Show is Danish multi-instrumentalist Gustaf Llunggren whose wonderful woozy woodwind offers Nordic warmth to the affair. Nordic warmth? Yup, it's a transcendent conundrum of an album: one that's a pleasure to puzzle over. Regardless of the stellar support, O'Shea is very much the star of his own show: his voice both doleful and hopeful. It's that strident vocal performance that holds the 10 songs in such ear catching, fuzzy focus. He might have his back to us but Lawrence is surely stage centre. 'Permanent Honeymoon' is perfectly displaced and our hero displaces us perfectly: disorienting, knowing, wry, sanguine, yet with a melancholic underbelly that you want to tickle and cuddle at the same time.
These are songs to ponder and prance too.
Why were they not on the radio yesterday?


Thursday, 2 November 2017

Lovesong: Joe Henry: Thrum


The new Joe Henry album 'Thrum' is a beguiling mixture of obtuse lyricism and sombre, sonic beauty. T'aint 'whistle test' catchy but, boy, does its timbre get under your skin.
The vinyl version is spread over 4 luxuriant, syrupy sides: noiseless and quite startling in clarity.
Joe's son Levon is the prime accompanist, offering wonderfully wheezy woodwind, whilst the long
standing rhythm section of bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose stitch everything together with a gloriously funereal clatter and... thrum. There's some fine guest guitar from John Smith too.
Thus far it's hard to pick a favorite, although 'The Glorious Dead' and 'River Floor' (see the video below) are just lovely, whilst the subtle orchestrations of 'Keep Us in Song' shuffle and slide, broken backed, yet somehow standing tall.


When I've worked out what Joe's banging on about (“The bride throws off her veil onto the groom. Salvation’ meaning nothing but ‘consumed’”?) this might just rank as my 'Album of the Year' alongside Neil Finn's wondrous 'Out of Silence'. It's certainly my most silent vinyl purchase of 2107.
Instinctive, live and perfectly imperfect is the new black and it suits me just fine.
I like Joe Henry...




Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Hat Club: 30th September: Michael McDermott

Mark your calendars for our next gig...

Michael McDermott, Saturday 30th September 2017.

Often likened to Dylan and Springsteen, 2016 was a big year for Chicago singer/songwriter Michael McDermott. Voted Best Male Artist by Americana-UK readers as well as top 3 Live Act, his album Willow Springs received several Best of 2016 awards as well as reaching the Number 1 spot in the Euro Americana charts. American Roots UK described it as one of the best album of the 21st century.
His live shows are legendary. Author Stephen King describes him as “one of the greatest songwriters”.
Once touted as Rock’s “Next Big Thing” following a major label signing in his early 20s, success seemed guaranteed with MTV, Rolling Stone and The New York Times tipping Michael for the top. A music industry in turmoil and some 20 years spent fighting addictions saw Michael take a different path. Now over 3 year’s clean the emergence of Willow Springs showed how right those original pundits were.
Michael’s band The Westies, which he formed with his wife Heather Horton, have featured on both Bob Harris's Country Show and Sunday show and Michael recorded a session last December with Bob Harris for Radio 2. Michael’s live shows are legendary. In 2015 he broke off a European tour for one night in London, described aptly by the local promoter "the date was May Day bank holiday Sunday and because it was a 3-day weekend we had people flying and driving from all over the UK for that one night. It was a barnstormer".

“This is one of the most desperate, haunting, unforgettable yet musically balanced albums you will ever listen to…Unforgiving and Unforgettable.” (Americana UK)
,
“I'm a believer. One of the best albums that have reached these ears in a long time.”(No Depression)

“A wonderful true record” (Whispering Bob Harris, BBC UK)

“This album is one of the best, not only of this year, but of the 21st century” (American Roots UK)

Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Hat Club: Michael McDermott: September 30th

Mark your calendars for our next Hat Club gig:
Michael McDermott, Saturday 30th September 2017.

Often likened to Dylan and Springsteen, 2016 was a big year for Chicago singer/songwriter Michael McDermott. Voted Best Male Artist by Americana-UK readers as well as top 3 Live Act, his album Willow Springs received several Best of 2016 awards as well as reaching the Number 1 spot in the Euro Americana charts. American Roots UK described it as one of the best album of the 21st century.
His live shows are legendary. Author Stephen King describes him as “one of the greatest songwriters”.
Once touted as Rock’s “Next Big Thing” following a major label signing in his early 90s, success seemed guaranteed with MTV, Rolling Stone and The New York Times tipping Michael for the top. A music industry in turmoil and some 20 years spent fighting addictions saw Michael take a different path. Now over 3 year’s clean, the emergence of Willow Springs showed how right those original pundits were.
Michael’s band The Westies, which he formed with his wife Heather Horton, have featured on both Bob Harris's Country Show and Sunday show and Michael recorded a session last December with Bob Harris for Radio 2. Michael’s live shows are legendary. In 2015 he broke off a European tour for one night in London, described aptly by the local promoter "the date was May Day bank holiday Sunday and because it was a 3-day weekend we had people flying and driving from all over the UK for that one night. It was a barnstormer".

“This is one of the most desperate, haunting, unforgettable yet musically balanced albums you will ever listen to…Unforgiving and Unforgettable.” 
Americana UK

“I'm a believer. One of the best albums that have reached these ears in a long time.” 
No Depression

“A wonderful true record” 
'Whispering' Bob Harris, BBC UK

“This album is one of the best, not only of this year, but of the 21st century” 
American Roots UK

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

In Memory of Delme

I've just heard that one of my favourite teachers Gordon 'Delme' Thomas has died.
Back in 2013.
How did I miss that?
I was a border at Ermysteds 1971 to 78. He instilled a passion within me for the written word: I was a dullard then, he helped me to see the beauty in language and taught me to look for a laugh, even in the stiffest prose. He also taught me how to seam a cricket ball and throw a dummy to the opposite '10'. Years after leaving school I coached Varsity rugby at The American School in London. At the start of every Fall term I'd take my relative fledglings up to Yorkshire where Delme would arrange a Saturday fixture with the 1st XV and a Sunday mauling up at Wharfedale. Of course the Yorkshire lads would thrash and kick the crap out of my boys who always came away from the weekend bewildered but buoyant, more in love with the game, beer and each other than on the Friday. Delme was always a kindly and witty host. He'd fuel me and my assistant coach with Tetley's and tales of... me. Me: 'twinkle toes'. His protege. His blue eyed boy. He remembered every break that I'd made, every dummy scissors, every tackle, every perfectly place chip. And this was the magic of Delme Thomas. He made every kid under the shadow of his beaky, beady eyed gaze feel like a potential hero. His selfless enthusiasm for life was addictive; he always put the boy stage centre. He was Merlin to many Arthurs. Under that benevolent beam we all felt emboldened, enhanced. We believed in ourselves. And yet... if we ever got 'up' ourselves he was quick to stick a pin in an over inflated ego with a withering, witty critique, that trademark guffaw echoing as chastised, humbled and a little dazed, we reset ourselves, wiping his spittle off our over pumped chests. He inspired us to be modest heroes: not a bad carrot to dangle to a wide eyed kid; all of us heroes in our own little orbits. He taught us to love life, to love ourselves, to laugh at ourselves, and to love our mates. Delme recognised the alchemy of childhood, encouraging camaraderie, coaxing us gently out of the playground and onto the pitch. He wasn't the only one to smooth the transition: Adge Douglas and Vernon Rook surely played their part, but while you kind of knew that they hung up their hats at the end of every teaching day, you sensed that Delme was forever on point, there when needed.
'You were a cheeky little bastard and never quite as good as I thought you'd be' was his assessment of my rugby ability 20 odd years later, 'but Christ, you had the best hands of any fly half I've ever coached." As a 40 year old I felt again the power of DT. Emboldened, an inch taller. I believed in me. As I strolled to the bar (as directed) he shouted after me "Ah, but cricket? Hopeless! You coming in at 11. Us needing 5 off the last over. You straight batting every delivery like Boycott. 'Playing yourself in' for Chist's sake! You were a witless little f*cker Jones." he cackled, spraying my back with spittle. But he'd remembered. He'd remembered. And I remember him on the touchline, a prompting Prospero; spitting, cursing, chiding, encouraging, praising, howling with laughter. His beady eye on me, only me: his blue eyed boy.



Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Hat Club: April 1st 2017: Brooke Sharkey & Adam Beattie


Last night's Hat Club saw the return, two years to the day, of Adam Beattie and Brooke Sharkey. They had new albums to tout and we were treated to some wonderful moments of balladry and candour. Their album titles tell you everything: Adam's 'The Road Not Taken'; Brooke's 'Wandering Heart'. Both are blithe, wandering spirits, true troubadours who reveal more and more as each song unwinds. Not so much an unravelling, more an open invitation to share in their vulnerabilities. 

Adam's tender tales are offered in hushed and halting timbre, confessional, humorously faltering, yet sure darts to the heart. He revealed himself with 'The Man I've Become' and offered stories of past lovers in 'Catch the Biggest Fish and Let it Go'. The biggest emotional catch of the night came with a composition in memory of his centenarian Grandfather 'A Song of a Hundred Years'. It's a simple tote of changing times, a thing of misty eyed wonder:

"I was born when horses pulled the plough
And marriage held by but a vow
A beggar’s hand assumed sincere
Much has changed these hundred years"


We all joined in the chorus and you could hear a catch in the voices of the hardiest hearts:

"Hold me high and send me low
For it is time for me to go
And in my eyes you’ll see no tears
For I have lived one hundred years"


Brooke is a fascinating bundle of whispered wonders. 
She sings as daughter, child, mother, lover; there's an exotic and sensual nature to her tremulous delivery that adds to a feeling of otherworldliness. Some songs were in her mother tongue and that impenetrable chanson added to the impression that her performance is as much about feeling as it is about meaning. 


Songs from a siren: Brooke floated fragile above Sam Pert's delicate, intelligent drumming, with the warm and dark sensuality of cellist Dominie Hooper's flowing, meandering, syrupy lines adding to a feeling of haunting displacement. It was oddly moving and strangely unsettling: just as you nestled in convention, Brooke led you elsewhere. And it was a beguiling, bewilderingly beautiful journey, one that led all too soon to a stunning finale. 'Sailor's Wife' floated upon a shimmering guitar chord loop, and a lovely, prodding, cyclical drum pattern from Sam. The story is that of a woman who longs to have 'wild in her eyes' but ends in 'a cushioned cage':

"She fell in love, with a man on a boat
His sails were high, he could keep them afloat
But her bones ached and he would grind his ivory body on their love left behind.
She was the type to keep her end of the bet,
but with nothing to feed off, half way she met,
a married man, soft and strong,
his heard of silk had been stamped upon."


The song is worldly, yet not of this world, an intoxicating cocktail of traditional shanty and woozy modernity that perfectly illustrates the duality of this unsettling and enchanting performer's allure. Naive and knowing. 
Perfectly petit yet sturdy and strong. 
A wandering heart for sure: broken but sanguine, four faithful chambers full of blood, sweat and tears.


Saturday, 28 January 2017

A Kind of Slipping Away...

30 years ago.
My oh my.
30 years ago Di and I attended our first gig together.
It was at the UCL in the Aldwych.
I had dragged my new 'squeeze' (then a disco disciple) out to sample the folk musings and jangling introspections of Boo Hewerdine and The Bible.
The support band was Deacon Blue for Christ's Sake...
Di, initially reticent, was ultimately smitten and thus her rehabilitation began: Tom Waits being the next hurdle.
But I digress...
Tonight we joined the puckered pilgrimage to watch The Bible reform to perform 'Under the Bridge' at Stamford Bridge; a 'one off' 30 year reunion. Synchronicity indeed for Di and I. It being Chelsea, if 'blue was the colour' it initially seemed that the game was more about blue rinse and Blue Stratos than anything more sanguine... Things soon became more buoyant: Not since haunting a memorable Blue Nile gig (at The Albert Hall around the 'Peace at Last' album) have I seen so many misty eyed middle aged men punching the air in dolorous delight. 'Love at second sight will see me through' sang Boo and we all nodded 'Oooh yeeess', sagely, like that fricking Churchill dog. Boo fronted things gamely like a 'have a go hero' in his ultimate dream life; a happy rabbit in the headlights; gleefully throwing shapes that his 50 year old hips would surely question in the morning. That sweet, venerable vibrato endures: as vulnerably swoon-some as memory pledged. And the band made a glorious sound. Guitars chimed, rhythms syncopated, jazz infused chords were diminished just so... reassuring us that, yes, we had known our onions. The delights were many: 'Mahalia', 'Honey be Good' and 'Skywriting', before the inevitable goosebumps of 'Graceland'. Then came the night's revelation: 'King Chicago'. "And I love you a little bit more than I love myself... home of my heart" seemed to ring true as many grabbed at partners and joined the swelling chorus. It was a real 'chicken skin' moment. Our creased and crumpled heroes threw themselves manfully at the songs with a dynamic gusto and dextrous clarity of intent; keenly displaying a musicality that more than justified those aged Steely Dan comparisons. But this was no disparate Dan; there was a muscular thump and rattle, an earnest integrity to the playing that could do nowt but make us love and reclaim them as our own.
And there we were, as the dust settled, sated and sure, slapping our virtual friends on the back; misty eyed strangers who we knew inside out, after a mutual baring of souls on FB. We stood there standing: a mugging and a hugging in a kindly way; kissing like statues, reeling in the years, recognising what we were, what we'd become and what we'd never be.
The euphoria of nostalgia eh?
The wondrous power of music: to filter, distil and fulfil. To move you to that moment when you clock your younger self and realise that you might have actually known what you were about.
It was kind of wonderful: a kind of living, a kind of loving, a kind of slipping away...


Friday, 20 January 2017

Private Darkness/Public Light

"Imagine for a moment the true weight of what it fundamentally means to be proud of your desires instead of shamed by them. It means that the things that wholly stir you in private darkness are the same things that you honor and fight for faithfully in the broad light of day. When this man wants to steal a kiss with his beloved away from prying eyes, it is not a fear of discovery that leads them into shadow, but a deeply held respect for each other and for the life that they share and together build upon."

Wise and empathetic words from songwriter Joe Henry in his assessment of outgoing President Obama. I agree with his thoughts about honouring your desires rather than becoming hostage to them. I reckon that a man's true character is shown by how he behaves when no-one is watching, but also by how he chooses to present himself to the world.
Trump?
Of course I don't know the man, but you've got speak as you see: I fear that Donald's 'private darkness' is a world away from a burning light. I also fear that there's likely to be little or no moderation or modification shown in deference to his wife and family. Where Barack has the temperance of Michelle to help shape, define and refine his world, I suspect that for Trump, Melania and family are nowt but pretty props, with little or no influence on his world view. If Donald's anything he is truly his 'own man'.
Is he driven by self-love or self-loathing? 
Those inner narratives are surely private; the unholy "alliance between voyeurism and exhibitionism". 
And why should we care? 
It's rude to stare. 
But given today's inauguration how can we not? 
The trouble is that much of Trump's success comes from being a self-proclaimed 'straight talker'; a man ever increasingly keen to wear his inside out. For most of us our demons are defined and confined by inner boundaries and tethered by some sense of dignity and self-restraint. I'm guessing that Trump, now more than ever, feels empowered to boldly parade what would be better suppressed. He's moved beyond moral self-assessment and now, to Donald, America's lofty endorsement of his character and potential is an ultimate affirmation of his eccentric personality; delusional quirks 'n' all. He does like to strut his stuff; shooting fearlessly and without caution from hip and lip. But with his often baffling streams of consciousness,  he's not only displaying a cluttered and confused inner mind, he's also publicly proving himself unstable, impulsive and reactionary; not traits befitting a statesman and politician.
Is there power to be had from unpredictability?
Is he chameleon, comedian, corinthian or caricature?
Fish or fowl?
Demagogue or dictator?
He's certainly no public servant. 
And privately? 
We all have a right to an inner life. 
We can choose not to give form to our dark, shadowy thoughts. 
In this, let's hope that Trump's private examinations remain unspoken.