Category: rant

In cahoots!

Nothing beats the thrill of hitting Publish to send your next carefully-composed post out to cyberspace. You wait on tenterhooks at Mission Control, hoping with crossed fingers that your probe makes connection with its target audience. Success is positive feedback.  Failure is radio silence. Global communication validates us, bestowing an identity we might otherwise lack. It draws us from our little boxes and broadens our horizons. The world turns out to be round, after all!

Readers of my previous posts will know that I hate labels. Putting the human species in pigeonholes isn’t my idea of fun, whether it’s gender or nation or class or race or colour. These are all passive descriptors. You can’t help what you are but you can take responsibility for what you do. And here I’ll break my rule and suggest two active descriptors: we are all either bridge-builders or wall-builders.

Sounds good, don’t it? Actually, it’s rubbish. We’re both. It all depends on the circumstances. Bad times breed walls, good times grow bridges. In the real world at present – and perhaps for the foreseeable future – walls are winning. Yeah, talk to the hand ‘cos the face ain’t listening …

And wall-building isn’t active, of course, it’s passive-aggressive. Building a bridge takes energy, courage, imagination. Above all, it’s an act of faith. It starts with empathy, a belief in the other side which creates the improbable miracle of meeting in the middle. I may be stretching the metaphor to breaking point but when common ground is hard to find, connection must be made in mid-air.

Which brings me to the blogosphere. Sceptics are doubtful about its potential to break down barriers and heal divisions, often dismissing it as ‘preaching to the converted’. Well, yes, bloggers are bridge-builders by definition but we also have real lives and our urge to fly may begin in the cages we have built for ourselves. As the prescient hostess in the Eagles’ Hotel California says, ‘We are all prisoners here/Of our own device’.

In a sadly crowded field my nomination for Most Dangerous Book Ever would have to be ‘1001 Places To See Before You Die’. Do the math, as my American friends would say. Times 1001 by 7 billion to come up with the number of trips. Factor in air miles and you have a recipe for turning the atmosphere into toxic soup. Travel broadens the mind, they say, but jetting around to tick 1001 boxes … each box containing a subset of tourist must-sees … holy relics, just thinking about it triggers my travel-sickness!

A viable alternative is to go to a few places, stay longer and soak up the culture. Comparison is the key to self-discovery in this poem by Philip Larkin:

The Importance of Elsewhere

Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch.

Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker’s cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.

Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

Another viable alternative is to travel in cyberspace. That may sound rather nerdy, but bear with me. Every single day 2,000,000 posts like this are sent. Each one is a window on the world, even the ones you can’t be bothered to read.

Two recent attempts at co-writing poems with fellow bloggers were like little holidays from myself. Grappling with several viewpoints took me outside my customary subjective bubble towards something more objective. It was like looking for buried treasure. It felt like a childhood game of Consequences where each person adds a new detail to create a story nobody sees until the end, when the paper concertina unfolds its serendipitous surrealism.

It set me thinking about collaboration. When it works, the whole is mysteriously greater than the sum of its parts. The best live bands sometimes say it’s as if an extra member was up there playing alongside them. Song-writing duos compose songs of magical quality – Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, John/Taupin, Goffin/King, Bacharach/David, Rogers/Hammerstein, Gilbert/Sullivan, the list goes on. Many of the UK’s favourite sit-coms are the product of two brains – Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son, Dad’s Army, The Good Life, Fawlty Towers and The Office are just some that spring to mind.

Winning teams have esprit de corps but this doesn’t stop them disagreeing. Healthy argument is essential for success. In relationships opposites attract. The most revealing interviews are those where two people talk freely as equals. The best teachers say they learn as much from their pupils as their pupils learn from them. Hierarchy stifles creativity, although Basil would never admit it …

A question I often ask in the vain hope of a sensible answer runs as follows … Why do CEOs get paid so much for running organisations which are so bad they need people on huge salaries to run them? It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, I admit, but why is nobody prepared to answer it?

And don’t get me started on why we need financial speculation! Since when did money become a commodity in its own right and not just a means of exchanging goods and services, huh?

Well, I told you not to get me started! Besides, I’ve got bigger fish to fry.

If I have a religion it’s a belief in the sacred triad of freedom, equality and fellowship. They are interdependent. They underpin human creativity by enabling partnership. Two minds are better than one. We do better to build bridges rather than walls.

If my religion has demons, they are rapacious consumerism and rampant fundamentalism. On the face of it, however, these couldn’t be more different: material and immaterial, natural and supernatural, here and elsewhere.

Yet both of them are heretics in my religion, if I have a religion. Both of them deny that we live in the spaces between one another and that souls is just a fancy word for relationships. Both of them say, Look after Number One and Devil take the Hindmost. Their crazed obsession with individual success and personal salvation are the twin scourges of our modern age, fuelling egoism and undermining a full engagement with the world. They make our heaven a living hell.

Two final questions: 

  1.  Can the blogosphere save the biosphere?
  2.  Does anyone know the title and/or author of a short story about a space rocket which makes an emergency landing on a planet because of a failed engine?  The other parts of the ship locate a new engine which turns out to be an inhabitant of the planet. They kidnap him and he learns about his real destiny, which is to power the ship. The story is clearly an allegory about teamwork – right up my street, as you can imagine! – and I would dance with delight if I found it again.

 

 

 

Just poured myself a beer …

It’s time I let rip. Most of my posts are composed like school essays, plenty of notes and constant editing to achieve A* and all that stuff. This one comes straight from the black hole somewhere deep down. First thought, best thought … Alan Ginsberg had it right. DH Lawrence too, he never edited anything he wrote and you sure in hell couldn’t uninvent him! DHL was a great admirer of Walt Whitman, another literary berserker. Anyway …

A bottle of beer by my side, JB Hutto’s Stompin at Mother Blues on the hi-fi … real music, check it out! … and a solid determination to let everything I type stand, no matter what! Deep breath, here goes!

We are an evolved species. We share that with every other species on the planet. That means we are as good as it gets. We know how to survive. It shouldn’t be beyond our collective wit to create a sustainable world for future generations of all species. Make no mistake, we find ourselves with a hell of a past – much of it recent – to expunge. In my lifetime, on my watch, we have even entered a new era named after ourselves – the Anthropocene.

But for most of our history we were in partnership with nature. We knew how to play her with finesse, living off her without taking too much. We only took as much as we needed to survive. Honourable, you might say. Something happened – the jury is out on the what and why of it – to make us want a cushion, an excess of protection against what nature often in the form of other humans threw at us. We created money, property, secure investments and whatever took us through the night …

Panama is the outcome, Panama and all the other so-called tax havens in the world that separate humanity more than any bogus division that has been devised – and devised by whom, one might ask, but isn’t that a whole other question? – bogus divisions such as race, creed, class or colour. Modern science has proved we’re all the same under the skin so get used to it. Everything you read is propaganda of one sort or another – this excepted, of course! – and most of us are pretty good at spotting spin. Hemingway said the most important thing a writer needed – and which of us isn’t a writer? – is a built-in crap detector. I know when I’m talking shit and so do you.

That’s what I mean. We’re an evolved species. We been around a long time. Strip aware the bullshit culture we’re all immersed in – me included, I’m not pulling rank – and we’re left with inherited instinct coupled with an awareness of the instinctive sense still alive in others. I look at the reproductions on my wall – may science be praised! – and see the art of Monet, Turner, Japanese prints, Van Gogh. Coming out of my speakers – the JB Hutto ended – is Boo Boo Davis, erstwhile harp player turned drummer with Muddy Waters, singing along in Howling Wolf style with a superb Dutch band. This was another random choice from my CD collection. Anything I don’t like goes in the bag for Oxfam. This is a stayer. It connects with history.

We are here to fulfil the hopes of our ancestors. We live the life they imagined. They weren’t all struggling in the mud. Our own idealism didn’t spring from nowhere. We may have been lucky to encounter idealists in our own lives – I cite my granddad and his daughter, my mum, as personal examples – but all they did was strike a chord in our inherited potentiality for this stuff. We are primed for hope and mad optimism, like it or not. Depression is a stupid cultural imposition. The human brain is hardwired for happiness.

I speak as one whose glass is half full. If you’re interested, it’s Hobson’s Rich Ruby Porter aka Postman’s Knock 4.8% Vol. Never mind half full, it’s nearly empty. What say I open a bottle of something else? You’ll have to shout, my internet is kinda slow … OK, we’re agreed on another beer, or is that just me?

Right, glass refreshed, onwards! Only connect, said EM Forster. Great … the question is, what to what? Duh, you’d have to be stupid not to know the answer … everything to everything else. We can do this stuff. The elephant in the room is death … and who doesn’t love elephants, with their long memories and touching graveyards? Pun intended …

Our awareness of the Grim Reaper is universal. It binds us together. Birth, taxes, death. Get used to it. Unless you tried to buck the common trend in Panama, or wherever. My dad was a tax inspector. He was proud that he helped shift the burden from poor to rich. To live in a land was to accept its rules, to feel honoured that you could contribute to the fairness that made your nation great. To honour the spirit of the law as well as its letter.

I didn’t always get on with my dad. To be honest, he was a bit of a cold fish. His own dad was lost at sea in WW1 … which of us isn’t affected in some way or another by that appalling conflagration? … so without a role model himself, he wasn’t that great a dad. Plus there was that big generation gap in the 60s … we were something new, man! My mum took dad to the musical Hair and he wasn’t comfortable with hippies crawling all over him on their way to the stage although my mum was up for anything. He and mum had their problems and for a while I was piggy-in-the-middle so dad was hard to get on with.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, my dad was spot on when it came to the morality of taxation.

Where was I? Oh yes, death. Our common knowledge of death binds us like nothing else. Some fantasise about an afterlife, but what if this is it? An all-too-brief window of wonderfulness? Doesn’t that make it all the more precious?

I’m 67. Who knows how much longer I’ve got? As they say, I’ve had a good innings. My generation is probably the luckiest ever to have lived. Free cod-liver oil and orange juice on the NHS, no war, no obesity after rationing and before fast-food, the mind-expanding experience of rock’n’roll and all that entailed, full employment, the sexual revolution … I’m starting to bore myself, need I go on?

Waddya mean, pour another drink you old soak? I told you this would be uncensored. A friend of mine once said I had a shopping-bag mind. By this he meant I no sooner made one point than I would answer it myself much as a supermarket shopper would pluck items from here, there and everywhere. Probably comes from the observation of my parents’ incessant arguments … one long argument, as it happens. I’m painfully aware of both sides of every question.

Right, where were we? The CD has ended, time for another. What’s it going to be? I have a big collection. Another random choice. I bet you can hardly wait.

Can. Ego Bamyasi. Life is good, each day borrowed from nowhere, the music continuing as long as it can. Joke, haha. Gallows humour is all we have. Best make the best of it. Seriously, though, the sweet thing about not believing in the sweet hereafter is that here and now is all the sweeter.

Did I just say that out loud? What I crave above all is a natural reverence for life to replace the crazy cults that crave a higher existence beyond. Life can be hard. Keats called it a process of soul-making, envisaging a heaven on earth. Nietzsche said what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Buddhism offers a useful description of what we’re up against to achieve higher consciousness:

Ordered from the least to the most desirable, they are: Hell–a condition of despair in which one is completely overwhelmed by suffering; Hunger–a state dominated by deluded desire that can never be satisfied; Animality–an instinctual state of fearing the strong and bullying the weak; Anger–a state characterized by an unrestrained competitive urge to surpass and dominate others and often a pretence of being good and wise. These four states are referred to as the Four Evil Paths because of the destructive negativity that marks them.

Continuing, Humanity is a tranquil state marked by the ability to reason and make calm judgments. While fundamental to our identity as humans, this state can also represent a fragile balance that yields to one of the lower states when confronted with negative conditions. Rapture is a state of joy typically experienced when desire is fulfilled or suffering escaped.

Which of us hasn’t been there and bought the T shirt? And could Google be the portal to a new stage in human evolution? If so, we need to evolve a way to use it to our advantage. The facts are out there but we need to teach our children how to access them … or perhaps, get them to show us! As I understand it, the higher worlds available to us all here and now are Learning, Realisation and Compassion. These are the escape routes from the lower worlds. Together, they constitute Nirvana.

Or as near vana as you can get. Let’s not get precious about this …

Moral: keep studying, keep your mind open, keep your empathy flowing. As to the last, I’m intrigued by the French poet Rimbaud’s phrase Je est un autre – I is another. For me, this is a cry against the egoism of subjectivity and for a more objective fellow-feeling … I contain multitudes in the words of Walt Whitman … but I’m open to other interpretations.

Anyway, the beer has run out and the CD has ended. The rest is silence …

 

Slow down, look around … (Grumpy Old Muso Rant #3)

It won’t surprise you to learn that this crotchety old-timer gets the heebie-jeebies every time he hears auto-tuned vocals or machine-generated beats. Most of us love the music that was around when we came of age and my tastes were formed when the usual method was to record several live takes and pick the best one. Overdubs were cheating and it took high-calibre artists like the Beatles, Beach Boys and Jimi Hendrix to convince us multi-tracking was OK. You can imagine my horror, therefore, that a key influence on the 1960s blues-boomers (Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, Eric Clapton, Peter Green and the rest) may have had his recordings doctored by the money-men in pursuit of filthy lucre. Here is the shocking evidence, illustrated by short sound-recordings:

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“An abiding mystery about Robert Johnson is the rpm conundrum. Is it true, as a Japanese musician told me it is widely held to be in Japan, that Robert Johnson’s records play way too fast? Should he actually sound much more like his great mentor, Son House?

If we turn to ‘My Black Mama’ by Son House, the song on which Robert Johnson’s ‘Walking Blues’ is based, we find that on his recording of it in 1930, Son plays in open G, capo on the first.

Son House, My Black Mama Part I (1930), last verse

Son-House-tumblr_larnqaCeMY1qavcf2o1_500

What happens, then, if we slow Johnson’s record until it is in the same key as the song it’s modelled on?

Robert Johnson, Walking Blues, last verse, slowed down

For me, this is a music transformed. The sound of a man, first of all: this dark-toned voice would no longer lend credence to the youth of seventeen or eighteen that Don Law, the only person to record him, thought he might be. Now, especially in the dip of his voice at the end of a line, we can hear the follower of Son House, and the precursor of Muddy Waters. Hear him pronounce his name in ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’ –

Robert Johnson, Kindhearted Woman Blues, excerpt, slowed down

– now he sounds like “Mr Johnson”, a man whose words are not half-swallowed, garbled or strangled, but clearly delivered, beautifully modulated; whose performances are not fleeting, harried or fragmented, but paced with the sense of space and drama that drew an audience in until people wept as they stood in the street around him.

Robert Johnson, Come On In My Kitchen, excerpt, slowed down

The wordless last lines of ‘Love in Vain’ in this slowed form, are the work of one of the most heartbreaking and delicate of blues singers.

Robert Johnson, Love in Vain, last verse, slowed down

This is a Steady Rolling Man, whose tempos and tonalities are much like those of other Delta bluesmen. Full-speed Johnson always struck me as a disembodied sound – befitting his wraith-like persona, the reticent, drifting youth, barely more than a boy, that Don Law spoke of: the Rimbaud of the blues. Johnson slowed-down sounds to me like the person in the recently discovered studio portrait: a big-boned man, self-assured and worldly-wise. It works for me, but listen for yourself.

Robert Johnson, Crossroads Blues, as officially released

Robert Johnson, Crossroads Blues, slowed down

If the theory I’ve advanced is not completely crazy, a possible motive for speeding up Johnson’s records might have been to try to make them more exciting for an age in which the Delta tradition he came out of was already a thing of the past.”

from   The Nightingale’s Code: a poetic study of Bob Dylan. by John Gibbens

robert_johnson2

If you’ve read this far, I assume you’ve had a listen for yourself. Don’t know about you, but I find this theory pretty convincing – not least because it’s written with style and passion. Robert Johnson’s influence is undeniable but I’ve always had a problem with his delivery, which strikes me as a little heartless. The blues is at root a simple, heartfelt form that moves the listener through empathy. Displays of high-velocity picking may impress, but speed can destroy the spirit of the music just as surely as excessive volume.

Don’t get me wrong, I love heavy rock with a passion – it can unpick the knots of mad modern life like nothing else – but I can’t help thinking that a more soulful Robert Johnson could have influenced the blues and rock scene in a reflective, expressive and ultimately more human direction. We are all slaves of the machine, one way or another, and it feels like a little victory to hear the sound of a real person coming through the speakers …

 

Postscript:

In the interests of fairness, I feel I should include an alternative viewpoint. I found http://www.elijahwald.com/johnsonspeed.html after posting the above and have to admit it’s a pretty impressive counter-argument. However, it doesn’t mention the pitch experiments linked above and refers rather dismissively to ‘this story’.

Can I counter the counter-argument? I’ll take a blind stab at it. Elijah Wald admits Johnson was playing slowly when he came into the studio. The engineers would know musical tastes had changed and may have speeded recordings up to improve their appeal and fit them on the three-minute disc. This would affect everything recorded, released or unreleased. Fellow blues artists might keep schtum, not wanting to rain on the newly-departed’s parade once he’d achieved posthumous recognition. Modern experts who’ve praised him in public won’t want to rock the boat, either. The guitar-tuning arguments are inconclusive. And Johnson wasn’t playing jump-jive. This was scarifying Delta blues which achieves maximum menace at a stately pace.

If he did perform them too fast, it might have been nervousness or commercial pressure or both. Who knows? Perhaps it all comes down to what floats your boat and I’ll stick with my preference for the slower Johnson. If it turns out he really did give the music less air and time to breathe, that only confirms my uneasiness with the brusque and rather harsh playing manner. Either way, there’s no getting round his importance to the music.

But I’m not budging on auto-tuned vocals or machine-generated beats. And while I’m at it, stop singing and playing along to pre-recorded backing-tracks when performing to an audience. It doesn’t matter if you’ve recorded them yourself, they can’t respond to the live atmosphere and are – in effect – a dead hand in the room. If you want to double-track yourself, invest in an auto-loop device and learn how to use it while keeping the audience entertained.

Music is too important to be left to the technicians.

SSL_SL9000J_(72ch)_@_The_Cutting_Room_Recording_Studios,_NYC

 

 

 

 

 

Grumpy Old Muso Rant #2

I really don’t want this topic to become a regular feature so here are all my gripes in one go:

  1. Intrusive photographers (see Grumpy Old Muso Rant #1)
  2. Sound engineers – usually young – who turn the dynamics of perfectly good rock bands into crass drum’n’bass
  3. People who talk loudly during gigs, making you wonder if they’ve got in without paying
  4. Performers who spend more time regaling the audience with anecdotes than playing music
  5. Small venues that oversell when they get the chance, turning the evening into one long game of Sardines
  6. People who shout out, “Play something we know!”
  7. Tribute bands that churn the stuff out note for note when the originals probably never played it the same way twice
  8. Clapping along on the On Beat
  9. Perfectionists who get halfway through a number, make a mistake and then force you to listen to the whole thing all over again as if it’s your fault
  10. Performers dissatisfied with the turnout who blame the people who have turned out for not bringing their friends

There may be more but no list should ever exceed 10 items. By order. And if you’re thinking I’m rather hard to please, you could have a point. I was once thrown off an anger-management course for punching the organiser. He made the mistake of recommending we go see more live music …

Psychedelic-Lightshow

Grumpy Old Muso Rant #1

Anyone else had an experience like this?

I am standing in a dense crowd near the stage in own little musical bubble, with the funky keyboards of Booker T Jones swirling around my head. Suddenly, I am barged from behind and forced to stagger forward. A small woman has pushed past me to take a photograph of the organ maestro. I shrug and get back in the groove. It happens again. The third time, I turn to her, moved to say something polite but firm.

Me   Look, if you want to take a photo just tap me on the arm and I’ll move aside. The pushing kinda breaks the spell …

She  You’re rude, you are!

Me    Oh, and shoving me in the back without warning isn’t?

She   (leaving for the back) You’ve spoilt my evening, you have!

I turn to watch her go and am confronted by a little guy with two large henchmen.

He     That’s my missus you’ve been slagging off, mate …

Me     Well, actually, it’s the other way around. I was standing there enjoying the music, when …

He      Button it … there’s people here trying to enjoy the show!

That is rich. And his pet Neanderthals – no offence to that unfortunate species – manage to look offended on behalf of the whole audience. I leave, but only to find a bouncer. Once I’ve told him the problem and he’s reassured me that I can rely on him if there’s any trouble, I go back to stand exactly where I was when so – yes – rudely interrupted. The sound is perfect there and besides, a principle is at stake.

I’m trying to get back in the bubble but now I can’t help wondering why people have to take photos at moments of particular musical intensity, oblivious to the enjoyment of others around them? And why do people sitting down insist that others, inspired to stand up and dance, move out of their personal sightline to the stage when the generous thing would be to enjoy the dancers’ joyful abandon? Is visual obsession the new fascism … oh, buggeration, the gig’s over! 20130114-cellphone-595-1358196043-650x0