Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Interview: The Black Angels




In the forthcoming September issue of the Stool Pigeon, there will be a short Q&A with The Black Angels about their new record Phosphene Dream. By me. This is possibly the best album so far this year that isn't by a hirsute, troubled homosexual from the mid-west. Their third LP is looser, less drone-based, with more harmonies and with, believe it or not, a sense of humour and positivity. The first track to appear online was 'Telephone', available for free download. Such a song is a genuine change of direction for this most soulful of psychedelic bands, proving them admirers of the lighter side of 60s rock like The Byrds, The Yardbirds, early Rolling Stones, and as they mention below, The Zombies. The darkness and thud is still there mind, they've just complemented it with some attractive dashes of colour and zeal.

The interview took place backstage at London's Borderline before they played a devastating set that night, prompting one wide-eyed, awed punter to observe, loudly, "man this is fucking brilliant" to the band's two directors of noise, singer Alex Maas and guitarist Christian Bland. It was those two who sat down with me, and below is the more or less verbatim transcription of what followed. We covered those stylistic changes, mismatched tour buddies, death and God among other things...





The new album is certainly more melodic and maybe mellower than before. Is that what you were going for?

Alex Maas: It’s definitely more melodic, and we wanted to use more vocals. Everyone can sing in the band so we wanted everyone to have their chance. As far as being more mellow, I hadn’t really thought of that but I can see the songs you’re thinking of.

Christian Bland: It’s not as freaky.

AM: And because its not as freaky I think more people can understand it, but without us losing any artistic integrity and keeping it in the psychedelic realm.

So do you think it's more accessible?

CB: I think so. It’s a way of getting some people intrigued who might not have heard us before, so they delve further in, and then on the next album we just freak them out [makes buzzzzzz noise].

What made you go and record this one in LA rather than Austin?

AM: Dave Sardy [producer] was interested in recording us. He said he wanted to make the most psychedelic record of the new millennium, and we took the bait. Once we got out there he had really good tact in how he spoke to us and was really good at motivating us and pushing our sound. He pushed us to try different things and took us out of our element to open our minds. We have new ways of looking at music now as far as writing songs goes.

CB: The new album is a lot more thought out. The second album was the band in the practice room jamming, and if something sounded good we’d be "sounds cool, that’s a song," but this one had more thinking it out – but not over-thinking, that’s horrible.

AM: There's something happening all the time.

Does Mr Sardy think he succeeded in making the best psychedelic album of the new millennium?

AM: Yeah, he really likes it. He’s really excited. I remember getting text messages at two o’clock in the morning saying "dude, I’m still listening to this record," and then at three in the morning, "man, I really like this record." We believe in it too, it’s a whole new direction.

CB: The last one was an hour and this is only thirty-five minutes. It’s unexpected... so it’s better.

The album seems less directly political in its lyrics, is it maybe more abstract in that way?

AM:
Yeah, there is a political aspect to it, but not an overtly obvious one. We don’t have a song like ‘The First Vietnamese War’ on here but there are definitely elements of that like ‘River Of Blood’ and ‘Phosphene Dream’.

CB: I think each song is a metaphor for something. A song like ‘Telephone’ in a literal interpretation is about calling someone in this physical world, but it may be something more than that, like trying to pray to God and not getting answers. Something like that.

Speaking of God, spirituality has always seemed important to The Black Angels, is that still the case?

AM:
Definitely. We were just saying before actually that a song has to move you first before anything else. Spirituality is huge in music, it’s where everything comes from, this ethereal, weird place in our mind or our bodies.

CB: I think music is our way to commune with the unknown, the unexplained.



How far do the new songs date back?

CB:
A couple of them were actually written before Directions To See A Ghost came out, and they could have been on there, but they weren’t developed enough. In 2007-09 those other eight songs were in development, then when we laid those down we felt the other two were ready to be let loose.

AM: We brought Dave 16 or 17 songs and asked him what songs appealed to him, and he helped us narrow it down to what he felt were the strongest. We have seven extra songs we have been playing forever, including this one called ‘Ronettes’ that could have been on Passover and then on Directions To See A Ghost. We’ll release it at some point.

I guess the two songs on Phosphene Dream that date back farthest could have ended up a lot different if they had been recorded back then.

CB:
Yeah, there’s actually versions of them recorded with the guy who recorded our first two albums [Erik Wofford], and they sound different to what they are on Phosphene Dream. There was a song called ‘Raindance Song’ that became 'Entrance Song' on Phosphene Dream. When we listened to it in our old studio in Austin it was so slow, but the new one has more power behind it, more energy.


AM: Which is probably good for us, because we might not have done that on our own [without Sardy]. It’s always good to see a band have variety of sound. We see songwriting in a different way now, we think of elements we didn’t think of before.

Were you listening to anything in particular between albums that changed your approach?

CB
: We’d been listening to a lot of the same stuff as ever, but maybe the Zombies. I was listening to Odessey And Oracle a lot when we were in LA. To me 'Yellow Elevator' has that feel. I was listening to a lot of the earlier Zombies stuff too.

AM:
A lot of Clinic.

CB:
And Love.

AM:
A lot of modern bands too, like A Place To Bury Strangers, Wooden Shjips, we still listen to The Warlocks all the time. There’s so much music, man.

This is the first album without Jennifer Raines on organ. Does that make any difference to how the band sounds?

CB:
She wasn't actually in the band when Directions To See A Ghost was released. She was just on the liner notes because she happened to be in the studio when we were recording it in 2007. The whole story with her is that I knew her before The Black Angels ever existed. We got along because we liked the same movies and the same music, so we used to get together and have fun. Early on in the band’s career we had just four people in the band, and I thought it could be cool to have an organ added, and I had one so why not just tell Jennifer what to play and she could memorize it. So that’s how she started out in the band, us just telling her how to play.

And that’s what also led us to parting ways with her, because on three separate occasions extending from 2005 to 2007, we asked her to go and get some lessons and learn how to play, and she was like “we’ll see… my hands are too small”. We asked her a third time and six months later she still hadn’t. We had signed to Suretone by then, which was a bigger label and we were starting to get serious, moving on. All of us had stepped up our musicianship and she hadn’t, so we parted ways.

On record, it definitely made no difference. Live, it might have made a little difference because some songs have six parts, and we only have five people. But we figured out five parts that are most crucial to the core of the songs, and moved on.

I saw you guys play in Zurich earlier this year when you were supporting Wolfmother. How do you think that tour went?

AM:
If ten people liked us at those shows, just ten, then we’re happy. To be honest, we were never huge Wolfmother fans and we don’t have any of their albums. But it was a good opportunity to get new fans, so we took it. As a band you don’t want to turn down those situations.

CB: It was good to play in front of a lot of people, that’s the positive side of it. But looking back, I don’t know about that tour.

AM: We haven’t been back [to Europe] yet to see how many fans we’ve got. But it’s gonna be good for us no matter what.

CB: But it was a mismatch.

AM: Oh for sure.

CB: We had a setlist that we were playing for the first three nights in England, and people in the crowd were standing around, folding their arms, talking to their friends.

AM: 16-year-old kids.

CB: So we changed out setlist to more energetic tunes and people got more into it. We had to cater to the Wolfmother crowd a little bit.

AM: It was the smart thing to do. We’re not there to lose fans, we're there to gain fans. So if we have to do a couple of things to change, then fine. But it definitely wasn’t our ideal tour. Now we know the guy [Andrew Stockdale of Wolfmother] pretty much fired his entire band and got new people to play that tour – it’s kind of shitty to not go with the people who got you to that situation. We don’t know what went on though, and its none of my business, and its up to him, but still.

If we could have gained a couple of younger fans this time around then great. I remember when we first started playing and it would just be 50- or 60-year old men - all these old record collectors would show up. All these guys from the sixties. They were our first fans. Indie record store owners. But getting a new audience is a great thing, we need to convert their minds.

So will Phosphene Dream appeal to, for example, Wolfmother fans?

AM: I think it will be more accessible to more people. Not necessarily Wolfmother fans, but it will be more accessible to people in general

CB: Anyone who has a love for 60s music should be into this.

AM: There’s still a few who won’t like it. Like huge AC/DC fans.

CB: Yeah heavy riff fans might not dig it. But jangle-rockers might.

Is there a difference in how you are received between Europe and the USA?

AM:
Yeah, and between Europe and the UK. Europe is bigger.

CB:
In Germany and France, they just freak out. They love it.

AM:
And you come to the UK and people don’t really know how to react to your music.

CB: Although when we play these smaller shows in England, they’re always awesome. 200 or 300 come out and they are just into it. But we’re not at a level in the UK to play for more than 500. We’re still working on things in the UK.

You two have known each other since you were 12. How has your creative relationship changed over the years?

AM:
I think recently we’ve probably been writing more on our own. I think that’s something that had to happen at some point, to move in different directions, then come back and bring certain ideas to the table. I think our communication has got way better than three, four, even two years ago.


CB: There are still magic moments. Sometimes if Alex is at the house when I’m at the house and he hears me playing something, he’ll come in and we’ll be inspired by the spirit and we’ll develop a whole song. That’s what happened with ‘Haunting At 1300 McKinley’, I was playing a riff and he came in and was like ‘dude!’. He started playing the drums and singing, and boom we had a song. On rare occasions that happens and the spirit leads us.

AM: You never want to force anything.

CB: We’ve never been ‘okay, we gotta write a song’.

AM: But if we had to, we’d fucking do it.

On the sleeve to Passover (2006), you quoted Edvard Munch ("Illness, insanity, and death are the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life."). Is death still a preoccupation for you guys?

CB: Yeah, it’s the only pure truth.

AM: That nothing lasts forever is the ultimate truth. It’s all about what you do now while you’re alive, what you do with the power you have. Death is always behind you, and its intriguing to us that you’re always being chased by that. It’s not morbid – it’s what makes life a beautiful thing.


Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Reviews: PVT / BARB


Here are a couple of reviews that won't see the light of day otherwise. The bright and the iffy of Antipodean music, so it is.

PVT
***
Church With No Magic

Rugged Sydney synth merchants back with a third album and a new name.

Pivot, or PVT as they are now known after a legal challenge from an American band with the same name, have always dwelt in an ominous, more hip and subterranean realm than the likes of comparable Australian acts like Cut Copy or Midnight Juggernauts. This is largely down to the fact they are signed to Warp Records, who are so credible it hurts, what with the giant figure of Aphex Twin still an influence on all their releases. Church With No Magic tentatively moves away from the consistent electro bang and clatter of 2008’s O Soundtrack My Heart and instead features pounding crescendos and peaks and troughs of experimental – almost industrial – noise, best evidenced on the imperious 'Light Up Bright Fires'. Preventing the record from being too abrasive are the mellow pop vocals of singer Richard Pike, which take a much more central role than ever before. Church With No Magic is an impressive evolution, though one senses PVT’s true potential is still to be realised.

Key Tracks: 'Light Up Bright Fires', 'Window', 'Timeless'


____________________________________________________________________________________________________


BARB
**
BARB

Young luminaries pool resources for first album together.

Whenever a so-called generation of artists emerges from a certain part of the world, those involved are usually quick to disassociate themselves from such a thing, eager to be seen as individuals and not the result of a ‘vibrant scene’. The current golden generation of young Antipodean songwriters, however, have always seemed eager to celebrate themselves, and so it is that BARB has emerged, a veritable supergroup featuring Liam Finn, James Milne (a.k.a Lawrence Arabia), EJ Barnes, Connan Mockasin, and Seamus Ebbs.

The warmth between this lot is admirable, but unfortunately the project falls down simply because of a lack of personality. It seems all these talents are deferring to each other with none injecting their full selves into the songs, and thus the album is a rather gutless, ill-disciplined mess; BARB lacks the wit and charm of Milne or the soul and passion of Finn. Songs such as 'Lot To Learn' and 'Characterful' feel like the result of half-hearted jamming, waiting for something to happen that clearly never did. ‘A Time To Contemplate’, sung by Finn, marks the only occasion any kind of firm direction is found, a spooky, frenzied track marked by Finn’s familiar electronic experimentation. But it’s not enough, considering the undoubted flair of the artists involved.

Key Tracks: 'A Time To Contemplate', 'Beatman Hasn’t Eaten', 'Counting Sheep'

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Base Over Apex


"I am large. I contain multitudes."

- Walt Whitman

Some have expressed bewilderment at the fact I publish interviews such as the previous one with Carolyn Cassady, and before that the aesthetic and existential quandaries faced by Sufjan Stevens, alongside what I hope are fairly lucid musings on both rugby union and rugby league. As if I'm a reckless hooligan in my secret life. A closet moron.

I can't help it. It is a combination of indulgent Proustian nostalgia (following league as a youth, playing rugby union as a youth and adult) and a genuine fascination with the brutal ebb and flow of these strange and bitter contests, particularly rugby league. To watch a game in the NRL is to essentially witness a series of mathematical - even philosophical - equations being worked out, alongside the familiar extreme rough and tumble.

One reason rugby league in Australia is so irresistible is that that it has always thrown up its own peculiar breed of heroes, even today. We have the noble, community-minded, wise old statesman in Parramatta's Nathan Hindmarsh; the aging, battle-hardened leader in Darren Lockyer; the troubled intellectuals like Jamie Lyon and poor old Cory Paterson; the old nag that just refuses to be taken up to the back paddock and shot, Steve Price; and the countless enfant terrible sorts from Todd Carney to Brett Stewart to Willie Mason. We can even cast the distinctly unlovable ex-player Matthew Johns as a kind of Caligula-like figure if we really want to push this thing further.

So to love rugby league is really to love all the caverns of life, as well as the perfect symmetry of the game when some deft attacking move, instigated by Jarryd Hayne or Johnathan Thurston, fulfils itself. It just so happens that the NRL is the most exciting it has been for some years; no less than ten teams have squads worthy of being called elite, and every other game, it seems, features a miraculous recovery from the jaws of defeat or some feat of extraordinary athleticism as to verge upon the yogic, the latest being the Panthers' Lachlan Coote.

And so it is at this time of year the speculation mounts as to State of Origin selection. Here is a suggested NSW squad for Origin 1.

1. Jarryd Hayne (Eels)
2. Josh Morris (Bulldogs)
3. Jamie Lyon (Sea Eagles)
4. Michael Jennings (Panthers)
5. Brett Morris (Dragons)
6. Jamie Soward (Dragons)
7. Brett Kimmorley (Bulldogs)
8. Brett White (Storm)
9. Michael Ennis (Bulldogs)
10. Michael Weyman (Dragons)
11. Ben Creagh (Dragons)
12. Anthony Watmough (Sea Eagles)
13. Glenn Stewart (Sea Eagles)

14.Trent Waterhouse (Panthers)
15. Josh Perry (Sea Eagles)
16. Kurt Gidley (Knights)
17. Greg Bird (Titans)

The biggest problem is that there is not a single right wing in the whole of NSW really making a claim. So some positional manoeuvring, regarding Michael Jennings and Josh Morris, is required.

Next post is an interview with Fritz Senn, one of the world's foremost James Joyce scholars.

Three songs: 'Canada' by High Places, 'Motorbike' by Luther Russell and 'Heart Thief' by Giana Factory.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Last One Standing: Carolyn Cassady Interviewed



Once every so often something genuinely worthwhi
le graces these pages, and this is one of them.

Around two-and-a-half years ago I was sent a press release by publishers Black Spring Press, announcing that Carolyn Cassady was re-surfacing from rural Berkshire to promote the new edition of her memoirs, Off The Road: Twenty Years With Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg. I asked for an interview, got it, then could find no publications willing to take the feature, for lots of different reasons. In my chaotic life back then I subsequently seemed to lose the confounded interview transcript, only for it to turn up again recently. Here below, therefore, is an edited presentation of the interview.


Neal Cassady, of course, enjoyed a deeply profound friendship with Jack Kerouac, the latter basing the character of Dean Moriarty on him in On The Road. Carolyn married Neal in 1948 and the book is her account of their life together, up until 1963 when she filed for divorce, sick of his gallivanting, philandering, drug-taking and general self-destruction.

Subjective though it might be, Off The Road is arguably the truest glimpse of the intimate lives of Kerouac and Cassady yet to be published. Cassady writes candidly of her own long-term affair with Kerouac (one approved of by Neal), and the extra-marital activities of her husband, such as walking in on him and Allen Ginsberg in, shall we say, a state or pre-coital exploration in the marital bedroom. Still adhering at least in part to her traditional upbringing, Carolyn promptly kicked Ginsberg out of their house.

Carolyn was fictionalised herself, as 'Camille' in On The Road, though she refused to read the book out of fear of what she might discover about her husband's insatiable mores.

She was encouraged to write Off The Road in the early seventies by publishers keen to cash in on the recent death of Kerouac, yet the book wasn't published until 1990. Tell the story of the beats it certainly does, but Cassady also devotes much of the book to her and Neal's experimenting with spirituality, leading to her eventually being a founding member of the Academy of Parapsychology and Medicine in the seventies. At times, her passion for advocating her 'answer to life' philosophy unbalances the book, but Cassady is never one to shirk from speaking her mind. For decades she has been a critic of the way Kerouac's estate and legacy has been mishandled, along with, if you'll forgive the pun, the misguided near-beatification of the trio of writers who are the subject of her book.

In turn, modern feminists have taken aim at Cassady, accusing her of perpetuating the myth of 'masculine artistic hero' and fulfilling stereotypical domestic roles. Her apparent kowtowing is perhaps made more unsettling when one considers that Carolyn was arguably the intellectual superior to both Jack and Neal.



Cassady refutes all this though, as we can see. She ended up staying in touch with the other women in Neal's life, and at the age of 86, lives near Bracknell having moved to the UK when she was 60.

She is a woman with a lot of stories to tell.

Was the book originally something to set the record straight about these men, who had become more mythical than human?
Yes, it was from the request by the editor at Doubleday that I wrote my memories, since when Kerouac died [in 1969] the media didn’t seem to know him. Just assumptions and myths.

What was you and Neal's initial reaction to the exalted character of his alter-ego, Dean Moriarty?
We thought the character of Dean Moriarty was too limited a portrait of Neal. He disliked having the side of him promoted he was trying to overcome.

The duality of Kerouac's nature is well known, but in your experience which side of him dominated, the sentimental romantic or the testosterone-driven braggart?
Well, both. His self-portraits are pretty true: there is a lot that is typical Kerouac;. I do flinch when I can tell when he’s being bombastic, playing to the gallery or just plain silly.

The photograph on the cover to your book is striking. What were the circumstances surrounding it?
I tell about the photos in my book. It was the day after they brought home the prostitute, and because I didn’t throw them out as before, Jack was so happy he said we had to go outside and take pictures. I used a whole role of film in my Brownie box camera.

How did you feel about the way Jack depicted you in On The Road and other books?
What little Jack wrote about me was fine. He didn’t tell of the times we were together in Denver, and he didn’t write about our affair. In the early books, written in the late forties and early fifties it 'wasn't done' to write about fancying your best friend’s fiance and later having an affair with his wife. But come the sixties, in Big Sur he was quite comfortable telling how Evelyn had two husbands at the same time.

Watching him at close quarters, how did Neal deal with his frustrated literary ambitions?
Neal was extremely restless.Then he said he had so many words bombard his brain, to choose le mot juste was agonising. He was aware this was to be 'literature'. He wrote hundreds of letters, however, without those problems.

How sympathetic were you to the political and social agenda of the sixties counter-culture, for whom Neal was such a hero?
I suppose the counter-culture is a cyclical thing. When societies become so smug, so hypocritical, so static, something comes along to shake it all up and bring in new ideas. I haven’t liked very many of them so far, but I hope the pendulum will swing again.

What about The Grateful Dead [who Cassady famously drove around in Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters' tour bus] ?
I liked the men in The Grateful Dead, I just don’t like amplified music nor that without a structure I understand.

How do you think Jack would feel about his fame and legacy as it stands today?
In some ways Jack would be gratified, in others not with everyone wanting to get in on his act for personal gain. He would be pleased he is now considered a great writer, but he would be bitter it came too late for him to benefit himself. And what the Sampas family have done would appall him [the family of Kerouac's third wife Stella, for information see here], beginning with the funeral and the grave. The memorial monument he would love.

All these characters are often depicted in fiction as wild-living libertines on the fringes of society, yet your book suggests a part of them all yearned for the structure of the conventional family at one stage or another.
Yes, Jack, Neal and even Allen all aspired to a traditional family life. I think that’s why they liked our home. In Jack’s case it was lack of sufficient income from his writing. Neal had it for 10 years, but he craved adventure and challenges as well, so it wasn’t enough for his nature. He never wanted to leave it as long as he had some freedom, too. I made the mistake of divorcing him, in the erroneous thinking he would prefer his other life. He wanted both, alas.

Has the rise of the Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady myth and brand been something you've watched with bitterness?
No one gave Neal any more adoration than I did. I was always glad if anyone admired or respected him for the right reasons. Unfortunately, that is seldom the case.

What made you leave America and come and live in Britain at the age of 60?
I became thoroughly disgusted with the establishment and corruption I witnessed. I was raised with the ideas that those institutions could do no wrong. My father even told me banks never make mistakes. I don’t see how anyone could have been more na├»ve and un-streetwise than I. I left that country.

Do you keep up with what's going on back in the States?
I don’t get involved in politics. I don’t believe any politician’s words. I am pleased with Obama’s victory - so far. I hope he can achieve his desires, like a decent health system and so on.

You deal with all of Neal's transgressions with other women and with Allen with admirable restraint. Do you ever regret your passivity?
Neal taught me a great many valuable lessons. One of them was jealousy is counterproductive. I am still close friends with his first wife and long-time mistress. We do have him in common. I knew nothing about homosexuality until much later. Now I would not have asked Allen to leave.

The Beat Generation writers are often criticised for their lack of respect towards the women in the lives, especially their creative endeavours. Was that something you experienced?
In my experience the men I knew respected women. They were always perfect gentlemen with me and in mixed company. They were very appreciative of me. I gather women who tried to compete in writing were overlooked, but I had no personal experience with that phenomenon. All my art and theatre work was successful and praised.

What do you say to feminists who criticise the beats' treatment of women?
I don’t agree with feminists; I don’t think they understand male and female functions. Yang and Yin. The Yin is far more powerful when not in active roles. Well... deep subject not appropriate here. I have written about it in Van Gogh’s Ear.

To what extent is it true, as hinted at in your book, that Neal was not the sexual superman he is often remembered as, but a little clumsy and awkward?
Neal was interested in any woman sexually, but he didn’t 'make love' or understand a woman’s needs, except highly sexually sensitive ones. I had been abused by both my elder brothers as a child, so I needed a different sort of approach than Neal’s. Jack’s was better, but I was handicapped. One of my deep regrets is that in those days we couldn’t talk about sex. I’m sure Neal would have understood and been compassionate, but I never told him.

Have you held to the spiritual teachings you detail in your book since then?
I still live by the spiritual principals I learned from studying so much metaphysics and ancient scriptures, because I think they are true and make sense - and they work. I test new ideas.

Did Jack's not accepting your new beliefs hinder your relationship with him?
Of course, we were disappointed that our best friend couldn’t understand what we felt to be the answer to life. But as time went on, we could appreciate the other’s beliefs. We felt his Buddhism was a step toward our faith in Jesus; we had studied it deeply. Still, we also understood we had logical minds and Jack did not. He was far more of a visionary, a dreamer, impressionable and so on. It didn’t harm our friendship with one another.

How do you feel about reports of a film version of On The Road, directed by Walter Salles and produced by Francis Ford Coppola?
So far any films that weren’t careful documentaries in regard to us were all dreadful. I have been consulting with Walter Salles often on the On The Road film. Also in the past, Francis Coppola consulted me and gave me copies of all the screenplays so far written. His son, Roman, and I wrote one together at his request which I still like. Every word in it is Jack’s. I’ve not seen the new script... Walter says he never follows the script exactly, or he enhances it as he goes along, so the written word is not what the film will be. I think if Walter had been allowed by financiers to follow his and Coppola’s original ideas, this film would be very good. Alas, for some reason they insist on Hollywood stars, Technicolor, all the usual stuff. No insights. No vision, no understanding this film will make millions whether it is good, bad or indifferent. So why not let him do it right?

And you didn't actually read On The Road until this time?
I didn’t want to know what Neal was doing on his road trip with Jack and LuAnne. I didn’t read the book thoroughly and objectively until working with Roman Coppola.

What makes up your life today?
Now I just read, watch DVDs and TV and listen to classical music. I have arranged my funeral and try not to be impatient. I get to see great friends from time to time - I have made so many from knowing these men in the past. I have occasional visitors from afar and answer a lot of emails.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Too Hot to Heave

And so it is that the Super 14 is suddenly upon us. In February, when cricketers are still gasping in the hot and humid air. Rugby weather it is not (he says, looking at the foot of snow outside and a game of rugger coming up in a few weeks).

I remember when I was a young boy, and the Super 14 was the Super Six and included Fiji. Fiji! In those heady days Queensland were actually a good side, winning the tournament when it was Super 10 in 1994 and 1995. I read in a book once (I think by Greg Crowden) that when Queensland are good, Australia are good. This is interesting; when Australia won the World Cup in 1991 the balance between NSW and Queensland players in the national side was pretty much even, though I do own that in 1999, the core of the team - and by that I mean Tim Horan and John Eales - were from the Sunshine State.

I have a hunch that this year the Waratahs and Brumbies might both makes the semi-finals, as I am continuing to believe the next two years will be great ones for Australian rugby generally. And with Crowden's (or whoever it was) comments in mind, let us wish Queensland well too, if only for the fact that in Will Genia they have one of the most charismatic and articulate players to come out of Australia in quite some time. He will supply Quade Cooper with ball, a contrast in brains if ever there was one... Genia is Arthur Miller to Cooper's Marilyn Monroe.

Here is my best Waratahs team from since the Super tournament concept began, back in 1992.

15. Matt Burke
14. Peter Hewat
13. Nathan Grey
12. Scott Staniforth
11.Lote Tuqiri
10.Berrick Barnes
9. Chris Whitaker
8. Wycliff Palu
7. Phil Waugh
6. Michael Brial
5. Dan Vickerman
4. Tom Bowman
3. Ewan McKenzie
2.Phil Kearns
1. Benn Robinson

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Nashing of Teeth


This appeared on the letters page in the October issue of R2 (Rock N Reel) magazine. I won't garnish it with any unnecessary commentary, suffice to say that letters of complaint are of course the Holy Grail for most critics. I've had a few in the past, and I very much enjoyed this one even if it is a bit too easily shot down for me to bask in it properly. The offending article can be found here.

Dear Sean,

I am a big fan of R2/Rock N Reel and have been for some time. I especially enjoy the reviews of new album releases, which I find to be both informative and interesting. What I like is the fact that the majority of reviews are written by critics who either like the music of the artist and are therefore aware of their history, or in the case of new artists, by critics who enjoy that particular genre of music.

It is because of the above that I felt compelled to write and express my disappointment with regard to the review of the Crosby, Stills and Nash album Demos, as written by Barnaby Smith. For a start Barnaby Smith does not like the music of CSN, or at least a third of their music, as he refers to the 'monstrous compositions' of Graham Nash that 'forever blight' their legacy - a bit harsh!

The review starts with a rather negative tone when Barnaby compares the band's latest tour to a 'depressing monolith', which 'chugs' across the world. Whilst I can see that the individual members may 'chug' around on stage, they are hardly depressing. I watched the clips of the band on BBC2 from Glastonbury and felt that, like most acts, they did not come across on TV as they do live on stage. I was fortunate to see them at Manchester MEN and they were excellent - including Graham Nash, whose 'monstrous compositions' have the audience singing along.

I carefully searched the review section of R2 for another contribution from Barnaby - I could only find one, the album by Emma Tricca. I followed this up by listening to some of her songs on MySpace and as a result I felt that the review was a fair one. Maybe Barnaby prefers new artists rather than old ones?

I am aware that music is subjective and one person's music is another person's noise; further, I note that David Crosby is a big David Crosby fan - although I would have loved to have read his review of Thousand Roads, with its synthesisers and contributions from Phil Collins. However, I do hope that this is not a trend for future reviews. I would encourage you to invite critics who like a band or genre to review new material.

If I want to read reviews that give vent to personal dislikes then I could always return to reading a magazine I used to buy - no names but its title was one letter!

David Jones, St Helens

PS The album Demos contains exactly what it says on the tine - DEMOS!

I have considered posting my response to this here, but I won't. It is good to know that at least somewhere Web 2.0 hasn't conquered all. Life is too short for the menial back and forths that many critics have to go through now on blogs and forums. So I will leave the final word to Mr Jones.

Three songs: 'Mingus and Pike' by The Ruby Suns, 'Things Fall Apart' by Built To Spill and 'In The Morning' by Wolfmother.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

That Pioneer Spirit

I have just finished David N.Meyer's biography of Gram Parsons, a passionate, freakishly well researched thesis on he who was born Ingram Cecil Connor III, even if at times Mr Meyer's tone is just that: very thesis-like (repeat that holy formula: argument-quote-conclusion) . He is also guilty of some clunky philosophising and even offers his own psychological take on Gram's inner demons and musical evolution. Meyer is very keen indeed to interpret Gram in certain way and ensures his research fits into his own boxes. Nevertheless, a fine read.

He comes to some odd conclusions though, does Meyer. Writing of the continuing gossip and melodrama surrounding whether Gram and Emmylou Harris had any sort of affair while they were recording and touring in 1972-3, Meyer writes with marked cynicism that "the great-love-but-never-lovers trope is a cornerstone of the Emmylou Harris brand."

Is it really? Maybe in America, but sheesh, I think her brand is more to do with the fact she has made three or four genuinely superb albums, and to many remains the silver-haired goddess of country. For no one (neither the goddess herself or any witnesses) to confirm an affair, Meyer reckons, is to both preserve Emmylou's dignity (and retain that necessary mystery, of course) and avoid the humiliation of Gram's then-wife, Gretchen. "Gram and Emmylou remaining chaste serves both Gretchen and Emmylou's agenda," he writes. The evidence points to a them having a platonic time of it.

Anyway, in tribute to Meyer's effort, here are some interesting things about Gram Parsons I have learnt from his book:

* Gram wrote the song 'Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man' while he was in The Byrds in response to a horrible redneck DJ they ran into while in Nashville. Now, of course, a pregnant Joan Baez picked up this song and performed it at Woodstock as a heartfelt protest song, with her backing musician Jeffrey Shurtleff dedicating it to Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, while Baez herself invoked the plight of her husband, in jail for draft dodging.

This is interesting, what with Gram being famously apathetic towards causes and anything remotely political (his refusal to tour South Africa with The Byrds being notoriously due to a wish to get baked with Keith Richards than genuine moral zeal). That his song is now recognisable as a protest tune because of Baez marks it as an anomaly in his body of work. Baez also played Gram's 'Hickory Wind' at Woodstock.

* Gram Parsons and Neil Young crossed paths in a taxi in Houston in 1973, an incident I first read about in Jimmy McDonough's biography of Young, Shakey. Producer Jack Nitzsche was with Young and was shocked by Parsons' drug-addled squalor. "You look like Danny... and Danny's dead," he portentously said, referring to Young's friend and bandmate Danny Whitten (enigmatic singer and guitarist with Crazy Horse) who had overdosed on heroin the previous year.

* Roger McGuinn. According to Meyer, not such a nice bloke.

* Gram's authenticity. Despite the wealth and privilege, the Harvard, the trust fund and his general sickening affluence, Meyer makes it clear that the sound he arrived at was the result of a childhood and adolescence of more or less constant, self-motivated music scholarship, from early rock 'n' roll to Greenwich village folk to Bakersfield and Nashville country. He was not a tourist riding the coattails of any fad, or trying to use country music as some kind of Hollywood fashion accessory to grab attention in the rock world. He came to the form as a true trouper with the appropriate background and sensibilities to pull off what he did. Let's not forget either, how deeply uncool it was to be country in the mid-sixties.

In short, he achieved what he did not because of his riches, but in spite of them. Even though his family's millions might ostensibly have made his musical dabblings the mere toy of a spoilt kid, he somehow achieved authenticity in the face of it.

* Just how rich his mother's family, the Snivelys, were. Gram's grandfather made the fortune that Gram was born into from Florida citrus groves, but even before him the Snivelys were old money, stretching way back. Apparently ancestors loaned George Washington $450,000 to help finance the war against the English. The debt still stands and descendents are trying to recoup the money to this day. With interest they are owed over a billion dollars.

* Gram met William S. Burroughs whilst hanging with the Stones in London.

* It was odd that Parsons and his wider circle of friends and hangers-on didn't come across Tim Buckley at all (at least as far as I know). In the late 60s/early 70s Buckley was recording in Los Angeles just when Parsons was with The Byrds, The Flying Burritos and afterwards. Meyer paints this time in LA as extremely incestuous, with a wide circle of musicians collaborating and working together. Buckley, with his more avant garde tendencies, probably kept well away from what was a hipster scene. The closest Gram ever came to avant garde was when Frank Zappa threw him out of session he was producing.

* Gram's family's curse is comparable with the Kennedys. He was an orphan by 18 after his father shot himself and his mother died of alcoholism (allegedly her new husband, Bob Parsons, giving her her last drink). Then Gram himself died in 1973, of course, followed by his stepfather a couple of years later, also from alcoholism. Gram's little sister Avis and her daughter were killed in a boat accident in 1991. Last one standing seems to be Polly Parsons, his daughter, who went through her own addiction hell in her youth.

* Finally, Gram Parsons avidly loathed The Eagles. Impressively, he called them a 'plastic dry-fuck'. This was because of, as Meyer puts it, a music that was "soulless, over-rehearsed, antiseptic, schematic, insincere and sentimental", going on to proclaim them "the most consistently contemptible stadium band in rock." Amen.

Three songs: 'Dear Undecided' by Captain Nemo and The Sundowners, 'Lights Up' by Field Music and 'Amber' by Kevin Barker'.