Of Bob & Beefheart & A Big Old Hat

                                Key   Brown for sound, big arrow on left to return to text

Half a year in and one theme runs through all my WordPress posts so far – breaking the rules. Rules aren’t laws, right? Rules are more like blueprints. The Tin Pan Alley blueprint encourages music written to a formula because it is easily duplicated by low-paid hacks with drum machines. But the music that hits me hard enough to burn the moment of first hearing on my brain always breaks the mould – sometimes musically, sometimes lyrically, more often with a startling new combination of melody and rhythm and words.

How does this happen? It’s well known that sentient beings respond more intensely to novelty than to routine, a trait perhaps evolved to enable rapid ‘flight or fight’ decisions. So maybe it’s just newness that clicks the camera of my mind? Nah, there must be more to it than a dumbass kneejerk reaction.

And anyway, haven’t we stopped evolving physically because the development of culture keeps us protected from nature? We’re a complex life form, or so they say. Me, I like to keep things simple. As I understand it, the left side of my brain handles words and reasoning while the right side processes music and rhythm and emotions. Science shows that poems set to music get the two hemispheres conversing and the brain lights up like those spaceship lights in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You remember … Da-di-dum-di-da

xunlmeygp3go3rqv0qtuGotta strange feeling I’ve only just scratched the surface here. What I do know is that I have complete recall of hearing Mr Tambourine Man for the first time. Captivating poetry to a lovely folk melody, of course, but the clincher for me was Dylan’s trick of adding an extra phrase to each verse so that come the end we have a breathtaking litany of wonders and the song becomes a hymn to life lived in the moment …

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind / Down the foggy ruins of time / Far past the frozen leaves / The haunted frightened trees / Down to the windy beach / Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow / Yeah to dance beneath a diamond sky with one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea / Upon the circus sands / With all memory and fate / Driven deep within the waves / Let me forget about today until tomorrow …

I like to imagine Bob Dylan tearing pages out of the rule book and feeding them one by one to a roaring fire on that windy beach. But perhaps the best candidate for Most Complete Musical Rebel of the 1960s was Captain Beefheart. Don Van Vliet, to use his civilian name, certainly ticks all the boxes … though I can’t imagine he would enjoy filling in the forms.

There’s a filmed interview where Beefheart describes the bom-bom-bom-bom-bom of commercial music as ‘the mama heartbeat’ – a hypnotic that sent people into a trance, he believed, a cataleptic state from which he sought to shake them with his fractured and wildly unpredictable music. And just down the beach from Bob Dylan, here we see The Magic Band pretending to imitate the surf boys but please click on Diddy Wah Diddy to spot early signs of subversion.

Debut album Safe As Milk was conventional by later Beefheart standards with a commercial touch provided by Ry Cooder, whose favourite track was Autumn’s Child. I’ll plump for the even more surreal Abba Zaba, the only song I know that celebrates a private childhood mythology about a chocolate bar. Babbette Baboon was his secret name for the monkey on the wrapper …

The ‘difficult’ second album was Strictly Personal, wrecked or rescued – a matter of personal taste – by its trendy use of phasing effects. In my view, the material was strong enough without fancy production tricks. The controversy doesn’t stop there because John Lennon was reportedly offended by the pastiche of Beatle Bones ‘N’ Smoking Stones which pokes fun at the childish elements in Strawberry Fields. This is ironic because the waspish Beatle never showed pity towards the objects of his own barbed lampoons. The irony deepens when you consider how childlike Beefheart was, still the young boy who won the sculpture competition but was prevented from taking up a six-year scholarship in France because his parents thought the art world too ‘queer’. You couldn’t make that up, could you? But it goes some way to explain what drove the guy. Yeah, strictly personal …

Widely acknowledged as The Magic Band’s masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica broke new territory in sheer Dadaist daftness. Almost as weird is the story of this monster double-album’s making as told in the excellent 1997 BBC documentary – public broadcasting, yay! – narrated by John Peel, the DJ who made the band famous in the UK.

Come to think of it, why are you wasting time reading this when you could be watching the documentary?

trout-mask-replica-501d04ad4c085Oh no, you’re still reading … I expect you want to know what I think of the album. The short answer is, I’m trying hard not to. That front cover gives me the heebie-jeebies and this back cover scares me shitless. Who are these crazy people, that they invade my dreams and point their alien death rays in my direction?

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I have it on very good authority that anyone who makes the mistake of listening to these hideous jungle rhythms will never be the same again … so don’t say you haven’t been warned. By all accounts, the follow-up album Lick My Decals Off, Baby is even more scary. Let’s keep Halloween a wholesome family festival, I say … and will therefore take absolutely no responsibility for what might happen if you click on Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop which sounds to me like a foreigner of terrestrial or even extra-terrestrial origin pretending to speak English …

OK, feeble attempts to be funny aside, time to come clean! My name it is nothing (thanks for that, Bob) and I am a Captain Beefheart junky. I like everything he did, the weirder the better. TMR is a bona fide work of genius which should be heard all the way through at one sitting – hence no tracks here – and LMDOB, though it doesn’t always hang together, isn’t far behind.

But if your own strangeness threshold is set lower than mine you may be on safer ground with the album many folk say is the place to start – Clear Spot. Made with the intention of establishing a more commercial direction, its clean sound and crisp delivery can be heard on tracks such as Big Eyed Beans From Venus … but wait a minute, what’s with the weird song title? … and those people on the album cover with that spooky thing that looks like a spaceship command module … I think one of them might be Chinese …

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Hang on, unless I’m imagining it, I can hear these like well weird words …

Mister Zoot Horn Rollo / Hit that long lunar note / And let it float …..

Ah, those crazy old times! Let’s flash forward ten years to Beefheart’s final record, the third of three acclaimed come-back albums. Surely by now he will have mellowed, taken the company shilling, sold out to the man? The opening shot in the next clip looks promising. There he is, silhouetted against the golden evening sun, standing calm and quiet in a big old hat … tell you what, why don’t we give the old reprobate one more chance to prove he’s a reformed character? Let’s hit the album’s title track, kinda sweet idea  ain’t it … Ice Cream For Crow?

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Glimmer Still Twinkling

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I’m putting my homage to Captain Beefheart on hold – next post, promise! – to record some impressions of Keith Richards on Desert Island Discs this morning while they’re still fresh. I’ve always enjoyed the programme, believing that a person’s choice of music enhances their intimate biography like nothing else … hmm, future post mapped out right there, methinks! The current presenter, Kirsty Young, combines a warm welcome to put castaways at ease with a forensic line in questioning that brings out their special qualities and charmingly eccentric idiosyncrasies. Forget the royals – public broadcasting is the crown of British life and programmes like this are its glimmering jewels.

And talking of glimmer, our Keef was one half of a songwriting partnership (take a bow, Sir Mick Jagger!) which rivalled Lennon & McCartney in both quality and commercial success, surpassing the Beatle pair in longevity. The Glimmer Twins, as they became known, had more hits than hot dinners and KR’s choices on Desert Island Discs reflected the rootsy influences that underpinned all those Stones classics.

His stories – like the one about their first meeting on a train when Keith noticed the rare American pressings of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry albums tucked under Mick’s arm – were familiar old chestnuts brought back to vibrant life by the wily old raconteur, with his self-deprecating English irony and that glorious wheezy chuckle. The chat was laid-back and laughter-filled, the music choices impeccable – one or two surprises alongside the faultless rhythm’n’blues – and the 45 minutes flew past almost too quickly … a nostalgic delight for one who lived through those exciting times and thoroughly recommended for younger folk hungry for the same musical nourishment that kept Keith Richards alive when the dole money ran out.

Would the British invasion ever have happened without social security, I wonder, and Art Colleges? Blimey, there’s another idea for a post, better get typing! And if you’ve got a spare moment, why not visit the BBC website for your Open Sesame to this radio cave-full of twinkling treasures …

Up Against The Wall, Muckerfuthers!

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                                                   Key     Brown for sound, big arrow on left to return to text

Online feedback from people who share my passion for music has got me thinking. Was there ever a more intense musical moment in history than the late 1960s? It was a confluence of many currents – musical, political, sociological, philosophical, technological … even biological if you count the contraceptive pill and, er, other medicaments – and there was one band who, more than any other, channelled that heady zeitgeist. Even their name straddled past and present, yoking a slave-owning founding-father with the newest and fastest form of transport.

Jefferson Airplane took off in the folk clubs of San Francisco, fuelled up mid-air with jazzed-tinged blues-rock and went stratospheric when Grace Slick brought her extraordinary voice and two hit songs – her brother’s Somebody To Love and her own exotic concoction White Rabbit, a provocative blend of children’s literature and psychedelic knowingness.

The surprise success of the Surrealistic Pillow album put them in the driving seat and a grateful production company gave them free rein in the studio for their next album, After Bathing At Baxter’s. Its wild and cheerfully uncommercial excesses, hated by the suits but loved by Airplane freaks, allowed them to develop adventurous three-way vocal harmonies – as here in Won’t You Try, still sounding good at Woodstock three years later.

Next up was the more disciplined Crown of Creation album, still my own favourite by a short head, but a TV appearance where Grace ‘blacks up’ to sing the title track highlights their volatile and rebellious unpredictability undimmed by success. And just listen to those resonant words, rock long since freed by Bob Dylan to say something worthwhile – something we’d come to expect by 1968.

This social relevance continued and even extended on the Volunteers album, whose opening track We Can Be Together blends war-weary alienation and communitarian idealism in an almost perfect apotheosis of those slightly unhinged times. Another track Wooden Ships imagines a dystopian future of hippie exile from a broken society, a theme that its co-writer Paul Kantner (the others being Stephen Stills and David Crosby) was soon to revisit in his magnificent sci-fi concept album Blows Against The Empire – solo, that is, with valuable help from several Airplane, CSNY and Dead members.

If you’ve never heard Blows and fancy some beautifully performed and still exhilarating rock music that evokes those tempestuous times, do yourself a big favour and listen to it straight through. I won’t spoil it by telling you the plot – but the album was nominated for a Hugo award, normally reserved for sci-fi novels. Side One – huh, remember sides? – begins with an acapella chant which establishes a powerful sense of historical disenchantment, conjuring a comparison of the troubled present with the paranoia of 17th Century religious persecution across the so-called civilised world..

Hide, witch, hide / The good folks come to burn thee / Their keen enjoyment hid behind / A Gothic mask of duty

A track from around halfway through the album – Sunrise – goes back way beyond the Witchfinder General to the root of the problem. Two thousand years, sings Grace Slick with passion, two thousand years of your goddam glory … No shrinking violet, she, and many of us loved her and her band for their brave and uncompromising critique of ‘straight’ society and its many hypocrisies.

But the album is much more than a call to arms. At the heart of its elaborate central metaphor is also a glorious celebration of human potentiality. Neither that burning idealism nor its musical realisation has dated for one second and listening to this magical album can give us the experience of stepping outside time to values which are eternal. And there’s nothing anti-religious about that.

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More Fun Than A Barrel of Monkeys

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How many bloggers, I wonder, have also kept diaries or journals? Since 1980 I have been writing down my wonderings in big red books – a whole shelf of them by now – and starting this blog was cheaper than buying a new bookcase. But my real reason for the switch, I suspect, was a desire to go public.

My journal was always an open secret – unlike Sam Pepys who wrote his diary in code and hid it behind the wainscot – and so I never minded when my family sneaked a look. Let them mock, I thought, they’re only jealous! I stopped writing it because I wanted to conserve my creative energies for proper writing – stories, plays, poems, whatever.

Book publishing is an on-off switch – you’re either published or you’re not – whereas blogging offers a gentle continuum between private and public. You begin with no followers and write in the dark. When interest gradually arrives, you start to write for an audience – people on similar wavelengths whose blogs you read and respond to, in return.

The idea of being in a writers’ collective appeals to my idealistic nature – something cynics say you grow out of, although I find my idealism has only deepened with age and grandchildren. The world should be a better place and the internet seems to offer humanity its best shot at improving things. Human evolution, if it’s anything any more, is now a cultural phenomenon …

But I won’t run ahead of myself. Plenty of time to develop big ideas, when you publish a regular blog. Let’s stick with blogging … and lists. I may be knocking on in years but I’m just a whippersnapper when it comes to the blogosphere. Five months in, I’m like a kid with a new toy. Yeah, lists …

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  1. Saving Drafts – just like doodling in art, this keeps the fun alive
  2. Thinking up snappy titles and eye-catching tags
  3. Ordering your posts with careful categories
  4. Surfing the net for Media to illustrate your posts
  5. Getting feedback for your stuff
  6. Starting conversations with people around the world
  7. Watching the Category Cloud reflect your developing interests
  8. Fiddling around with old posts to improve your Archive
  9. Learning new communication skills, both verbal and visual
  10. Having a constant incentive to write

When it comes to dislikes, so far so good … unless you count a slight suspicion that featured posts are mostly if not entirely upgrades … but let’s keep this post upbeat, eh? Perhaps the secret of increasing readership is to find a Niche, but for now I’ll just keep firing off at random as the mood takes me. Best therapy in ages and if somebody else likes it, so much the better!

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Confessions of an Old Fool, Part 2

After all the fuss and melodrama of the previous post, here is my shamefaced but somewhat relieved update. As many computer-savvy though not necessarily younger friends have patiently pointed out, deleting your photos just sends them to somewhere called the Recycle Bin where they sit patiently waiting for Restoration – think young Charles the Second (soon to be) in his French exile waiting for the call, perhaps.

Who knew? Er, everybody but me, it seems …

Anyway, panic over … but it has got me thinking. Why, when I thought my photos were gone forever, did I feel such crazy elation? Maybe because it gave me a chance to be funny. Perhaps I welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate my stoical strength in the face of catastrophe. But I suspect the real reason was that, all of a sudden, I felt free.

As my wondrously down-to-earth better-half put it, “You never look at them anyway.” She’s not wrong. I love the idea that they are there, of course, a kind of instant memory bank. One day I may be only too glad for the shortcut they provide to the past but for now it’s always the next thing that matters, not the last. If you’re always moving on, they tell me, you should travel light.

It may help that I grew up in a less visual culture. Radio was always more compelling than our dull 1950s television. Newspapers and magazines carried a small number of line drawings and black & white photographs. Jazz and even Rock’n’Roll worked their magic by inner dynamics where the way things looked was somehow less important. Now, image is everything and images are everywhere.

I’ve always been more comfortable with words. In a previous post, I compared words to a river running through us all. As a fossil record of our common past, words link us together. Could it be that the flow of communication, nowadays, is halted every time we look at a photograph with its hollow and distracting promise of a brand-new way of looking?

Photos always creep me out a bit, those flat and frozen moments in a limbo between life and death. Portraits are frequently too knowing – only models and actors manage to look natural. Candid snapshots are often intrusive. Nature photography can diminish and disappoint. I sometimes wonder if our visually-obsessed culture leaves us all swimming in the shallow end, more and more fearful of venturing into depths of experience which we lack the words to describe.

Like everything, I suppose, it’s a balance. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but only if manages some kind of meaningful communication in its own right. Has the balance swung too far in favour of appearance, I wonder? I read a great post recently about the spread of emoticons online ( follow What is the Big Deal? ) which made me wonder if visual stereotypes were starting to replace the subtle, nuanced use of words to deliver thought and emotion. Labels are the way we commodify the world, at our peril.

Deep waters, indeed, and I am barely afloat myself. You might say that photographs are to art what soundbites are to language. That said, I love trawling the internet for photos to illustrate my posts. I enjoy ironic juxtapostion. Perhaps that’s what I’m flailing towards here. Photos have their place in a context of words. Showing your holiday snaps to your neighbours would be an abuse of human rights without your and possibly their amusing commentary. And publishing a blogpost like this without the light relief of a weird and wacky illustration is the way to online oblivion. To add the context of words and thereby prove my point, I can only say that I find this photograph particularly uplifting …

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History is Junk

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I have just deleted all the photographs stored on my computer. Pictures of my grandchildren, places I shall never see again, a thousand beautiful moments frozen in time and never to be recaptured … all of them, gone in a flash.

Have I suffered some kind of mental breakdown, you ask? Well, when I realised what I’d done, I almost did. But this was not the deliberate act of a desperate man, determined to obliterate his past. Nothing so grand and dramatic. This was just an old fool way out of his depth with new technology. Somehow I managed to select everything (and not just the photo I wanted to trash) before pressing Delete. The process seemed to be taking an awful long time, I thought, for just one picture … and then it hit me between the eyes.

it wasn’t just one picture …  I’d only gone and binned the lot … boohoohoo … but was sympathy forthcoming? Judge for yourself from the following transcript by putting yourself in my position.

You:   Aaaaarrrgghhhh!

She:   Wassup?

You:    I’ve lost all my photos.

She:    And what do you expect? You don’t know what you’re doing on that wretched thing. I’ve told you to get prints run off.

You:    But there were hundreds of them.

She:     Put them in a nice little album, take it out and show people, something you can hold in your hand.

You:     Hundreds and hundreds …

She:     Never mind, what about that cloud thingy you set up? Won’t they be on there?

You:     Not any more. It was too expensive. I stopped paying for it.

She:      Well … you’re paying for it now.

Of course, one day soon you’ll be able to laugh about it. Hahaha, you will guffaw, for what are photographs but static records of Still Life when every moment you are surrounded by Life As A Movie?

Hohoho, you will chuckle, for instead of relying on second-hand images you can feed on direct memories with all their sense impressions and rich emotions.

Heeheehee, you will wheeze – don’t forget I mentioned the fool was old – yes, Heeheehee, for what is a photograph but a lie and a cheat when you know the only thing that interests you in life these days is getting down and dirty with the truth?

And then you think of all the hours you spent setting the little works of art up ,,, watching for the perfect moment … framing the shot for optimum effect … charging the bloody batteries …

Yes, one day soon you’ll be able to laugh and laugh about it.

But not yet.

When Two Tribes Go To War

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I follow several blogs and reckon you could put most of them into one of two categories – those that want to celebrate the world and those that want to reform it. My parents died before the internet really took off, but my father would have been a celebrator and my mother a reformer. I find myself torn between those positions, as I did when they were alive, piggy-in-the-middle trying in vain to mediate between them.

Their big disagreement was about human nature. Dad reckoned it was fixed and you couldn’t change it. Mum thought there was no such thing, that we were all just products of conditioning by society. He thought she was an impractical idealist. She thought he was a blinkered cynic. They would argue long into the night, carrying on a war of attrition and driving one another into more and more entrenched positions. Dawn often broke before they would agree to an exhausted truce and rally their spent forces for another battle the following night.

As you might imagine, I don’t enjoy conflict. I prefer to sit on the fence in most arguments, acutely aware of the merits on both sides. This can infuriate those who seek yes-no answers to black-and-white questions, but I have come to see my indecision as a positive quality. I don’t occupy fixed positions and I don’t just go along with majority viewpoints. Listening to your parents argue night after night is a royal pain in the neck but it can help you develop a truly independent state of mind.

In a way, of course, they were both right. Only by stepping out of the ‘mind-forged manacles’, to use William Blake’s phrase, can we discover who we really are and what we might become. And what I am – at least, what I hope and believe I am – is someone who loves the world so much, he wants to make it better.

So is my blog a celebration or a call to arms? The answer, of course, is both. It is only through appreciating the best in life that you can begin to identify the worst. The difficult bit is finding a language that can encompass both good and evil. You can make a start by admitting that you couldn’t recognise the one without the other …