Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Whole of an Artist

I first became aware of Frank Zappa as a 14 year old poring over rock encyclopedias - and then seeing some of the strangely titled records in the record shops. I didn't hear any until much later, when, I think, Marc Almond, one of my heroes, included an extract from "Uncle Meat" on a show of his favourite albums. (He also included "Berlin" by Lou Reed which I quickly bought - Zappa would have to wait.) At university, a friend taped me "Hot Rats" which I sort of enjoyed, though it wasn't usually my kind of thing and at some point I picked up CDs of "Uncle Meat" (which I found a little disappointing) and "Cruising with Ruben and the Jets" (which I loved). An older friend was a fan, and when his back catalogue got picked up by Rykodisc I got the two "Cheep Thrills" compilations. All the Zappa I could possibly need....

...then on a trip to Newcastle I picked up the Uncut special on Zappa to read on the train. With a review of every single album, I quickly became aware of how little I had heard...of how much there was. A few albums later - "Bongo Fury", "Roxy and Elsewhere", "Mothers Live at Filmore" - I was surely sated. Then a reissue of his first three albums in a cheap box, oh go on then. At some point I have to admit that I have around 20 Zappa albums. The bits I like - the crazy psychedelia of the early cut up albums, the doo wop pastiches, the over the top guitar wig outs - and the bits I didn't - the frat boy humour, the overly precious jazzy instrumentals, the somewhat proggy tendency of the songs - at some point become merged, sometimes in a single album or single song. Okay, I'm a fan now, I guess. But there's not just these twenty albums, there's another twenty, and another, and another....

Zappa it seems is one of those artists who is a genre to himself. I'd add in Prince, Dylan, Neil Young, Eno, Bowie, George Clinton, Rundgren - probably a few more. Once you start buying them you can't stop. The bad becomes almost as important as the good....

I remember Malcolm Cowley on William Faulkner writing that his best work wasn't a particular novel but the "whole" of the saga, or individual scenes or stories - probably a necessary statement given his choosing of extracts for the "Portable Faulkner". Few writers are at a quality throughout their life - there is apprentice work, there are sidetracks, there is hack work. I recently hovered over an unmade F. Scott Fitzgerald film script in a secondhand bookshop before realising it wouldn't add anything to my knowledge of Fitzerald (I've two different versions of the "The Last Tycoon.") Whereas a novel tends to be a complete work its often not as simple as that. Early versions of "Lady Chatterley's Lover", "Sons and Lovers", and "A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man" have been published for instance - there are two versions of two of my favourite novels, "Tender is the Night" and "A Clockwork Orange." The "best" novel of the 20th century according to one poll, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz was initially a much shorter work published in a magazine. Are multiple volume books like "The Lord of the Rings" or the Patrick Melrose novels single or multiple works?

What I think is interesting is that even as we look for the "perfect" work - the Stone Roses debut, or "Blade Runner" or "The Life Times of Michael K" - the artist is only accidentally responsible for this. Artists like Neil Young, Frank Zappa and Prince didn't just record an "album" but compiled one from different tracks. Young's recent "Hitchhiker" was an album of acoustic demos from the early 1970s which has seen most of its tracks released over the years in different versions on different albums. There are tracks on the last album of Pixies' original incarnation which appeared on their original "purple tape" sent as a demo to 4AD records. Even David Bowie - who would often go into the studio with nothing written - would resurrect a 1973 song for the "Scary Monsters" track "Scream like a Baby" - and "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic", a number one for the Police, was from a Sting demo that had long lain unrecorded.

Going to an art gallery, I'm often interested in career retrospectives. Over the years some of my favourite shows have been like this - Basquiat, Hannah Hoch, Jackson Pollock, Tove Janssen have all been career spanning shows that have absolutely fascinated me with the progress of their work. Much as we can talk about art without talking about the artist and their life (and the times in which they live), the art is often enhanced by an understanding of the circumstance of its making.

Back to Zappa, I think he'd pretty much stopped releasing proper albums around the time I got into music (his hit single "Valley Girl" from "Ship Arriving Too Late to Save A Drowning Witch"), and what would come next would be a range of curated albums - taking old live tapes and manipulating in the studio. Since he died we've had one of the most comprehensive reissue programmes ever. Certainly collections like "Lather" (which was stripped apart for 3 albums in the late 70s) and the recent expanded "Uncle Meat" are worthwhile additions to the canon; they feel like the have the imprimatur of the artist, even though he has left.  Yet though we are all interested in posthumous releases by artists we love - such as Prince and Bowie and Amy Winehouse - the posthumous releases are rarely an embarassment of riches.

Now, where can I get a cheap copy of Zappa's "Jazz from Hell".....

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Dwarves of Death by Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe is a novelist whose fiction I've long intended to read, having only read his B.S. Johnson biography "Like a Fiery Elephant" in the past. Most well known for his fourth novel "What a Carve Up!" I plumped instead for the short novel that precedes it "The Dwarves of Death" partly because it adds to that interest micro-genre of novels about imaginary bands.

There are three imaginary bands in this 1990 satirical thriller, the Alaska Factory, the Unfortunates (after the B.S. Johnson novel) and the titular Dwarves of Death. Bill is the keyboard player in the first of these. He dropped out of Leeds University to follow his piano teacher to London, and has an admin job whilst moonlighting occasionally in a jazz bar, a place where he accidentally met his sort-of girlfriend Madeleine. "The Alaska Factory" are a mismatch and Bill's synth, which he lugs across London on the bus, isn't a good fit. His band's shadowy manager, Chester, suggests he leaves them and joins The Unfortunates, a darker band, whose sound needs filling out.

Bill is our genial narrator, but an unreliable one, in that he gets nearly everything wrong. Part dreamer, part innocent, he also is self-obsessed, not noticing what's around him. His old girlfriend from school, whom he has not been in touch with since coming to London, he realises seemed to see right through him - know before he did what he wanted to do. What he wants to do in London is vague. His relationship with Madeleine is one of bad dates and poor communications, and they never get further than a kiss. When she says she wants things to change, he misinterprets it as she wants him to marry her, when she's finally trying to bring the whole thing to a close. He shares a flat with Tina, sister-in-law of his piano teacher, on a grotty south London estate, but never sees her as she works shifts. They leave each other increasingly terse notes. Its obvious that Tina's boyfriend is abusing her, but not to Bill. The third woman he has an interest in is a Scottish barmaid at the pub that the band meet in.

This predictable life of late '80s London, is a recognisable but sterile one. A city in decline. Britpop hasn't yet happened - and there's no mention of the house music or other black formats which leading to warehouse parties around the M25. The Alaska Factory sound like they might be a Keane before their time - Bill's tastes run to the melodic, whilst The Unfortunates are much more intense, probably a late goth band of some sort. Yet the music is a bit of a red herring. For the story starts - and is flagged on the cover - with Bill's first meeting with the Unfortunates, in a house that their manager has provided for them. Left behind with the singer as they head to rehearsals, the singer waits in for a parcel from the shadowy man who lets them have the house. Its a mistake. Two assassins, hooded, come in to kill him. Bill hides in a corner and escapes - but is suddenly a fugitive. He never gets to join the now singerless and aptly named Unfortunates.

The novel then goes back to how it all begins and we get a comic tableau of his London life. He's like a Nick Hornby character, but without any pretension of success. The writing is often engaging and comic even as we cringe at Bill's description of situations - spending his money to taking the very ordinary (but beautiful) Madeleine to see an Andrew Lloyd Webber and spending all his time slagging off it and her love for it. Actually, as much as Hornby, its Ben Elton I recall, whose first novel "Stark" was a well read favourite from 1989. As a comedian Elton's novel was more a series of skits strung together with a bumbling hero - and in some ways "The Dwarves of Death" - its thin plot aside has a similar characteristic. An elongated piece about waiting for a bus in South London could almost be a piece of contemporary stand up.

For it turns out the Dwarves of Death were the most obscure of the obscure punk bands to come out of Scotland. Luckily Bill's friend from home is an obsessive collector and even sends him his impossible to find 2nd single. It turns out that there is a coded message in the b-side of the single - and Bill has unwittingly got involved in a revenge drama involving the barmaid and the owner of the recording studio they use.

The plot feels a red herring in many ways - Chester's getting Bill to join the Unfortunates is a pure plot device - and in what is a readable, satirical story, we realise that this is much more a dark coming of age story, with Bill having tried London, having got into all sorts of unexpected trouble, before finding what it is he really wants from his life.  Even though its set in 1988, it feels more dated in its style than its subject, the writing chatty but occasionally infuriating, as Bill, a likeable sort, proves to be a bit of a well meaning fool. That pre-internet world - where you would write a letter to old friends, or leave a message on an answerphone and not know if it had been picked up - is brought to live vividly.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Includes some spoilers.

Naomi Alderman's prize winning novel "The Power" begins with a familiar framing device. There are emails from "Naomi" to "Neil". The latter has written a history - albeit a somewhat fictionalised one - and wants the former's opinion. He is an archeologist and historian, looking back on a period of (from their perspective) ancient history. The past though is in our future - and this is where the novel begins, in our present day. The "looking back" is from a perspective of several thousand years in the future.  I'll come back to that frame.

In the present of the novel - we begin at the necessary place, when "the power" first comes to the girls. Teenage girls are the first to discover they have it - its an electric shock they can use when they touch people and things, sometimes little more than a tickle, but if they learn to control it, enough to injure or kill or worse. Like the history that it purports to be, it takes us through several origin stories. The abused girl Allie, who uses it on her foster father; the British girl, child of a gangster, who discovers the power, when her mother is attacked, the Nigerian man - soon to be a journalist - who uploads the first video of the power in action to YouTube, and an American politician who discovers it is better to hide this skill. Over time these stories will converge. Allie is the most interesting of the four characters. She runs away and guided by a voice in her head, she comes to an isolated convent where the nuns take her in. This all woman environment is where she begins to develop a new personality, a new name, and a new religion. She begins to call herself Mother Eve, and as her power develops and the voice in her head gets stronger, she begins to be a leader amongst the women.

There's a fifth story. In Moldova, a male leader dies and is replaced by his wife - who quickly declares a new country, run purely by women. Meanwhile the British girl's father realises what an asset he has in the power of his daughter, and she begins to control his drug business. When she turns up in America on the run from a revenge attack, she turns up at the convent and Mother Eve realises she has a soldier.

The power is something that appears to have always have been there but dormant - or possibly not - as some kind of nerve agent added to the waters during and after the war like flouride, so that all women now have it within them. In some ways the origins of the power matter less than what it means. Some people immediately realise it means everything has changed. Men can no longer rape or hurt women without being hurt back. In small doses it can enhance sex games. Yet at the same time this affront to masculine power means there's a counter revolution. On 4Chan like websites men use aliases as they plot revenge and converse freely of their hatred for women. Alderman, who used to develop stories for interactive game environments, is one of the few writers who is not phased by writing about the internet, but does with total confidence. It is one of the book's strengths. Compare with Eggars' "The Circle" where you get the feeling that the digital side is something he's researched.

Alderman has always been an interesting and ambitious writer, and this book really plays to her strengths. There's a lot of cleverness to her vision of this new world, a lot of spirited invention. As the book continues we move into a less speculative realm - as the action speeds up. The women's power shows itself via a "skein" that appears around their collarbone. There are men who have it as well. In the background there is the sense that this change is happening so rapidly that laws and technology can hardly keep up. At the same time the fear of these women leads to theocratic regimes in particular clamping down on the new reality - in the new Moldova, there is a war going on. Tunde, the principal male character in the novel, is now a celebrity journalist sharing his stories via his internet channels - being asked to report on the latest outburst of the phenomenon.

The pace begins to hot up - centred on the new female republic where for various reasons all the main characters have now ended up. The plot is labrynthine and breathless. Having given us plenty of explanation about the new reality, we now accept it. Like in China Mieville's "Perdido Street Station" or Lauren Beukes' "Zoo City" the new reality is no longer seen as strange. It sometimes seems the women are now almost like superheroes and the power is their super power. Though it makes the book a thrilling page turner in this latter part, I felt the move out of America leads to us losing something of the everyday strangeness. In this lawless eastern country its like anything can happen without consequence. The politician is now a senator, having finally shown her power on the televised debate. She has set up training camps for the girls in a public-private partnership. Mother Eve can only feel safe by owning the whole world - the voice in her head tells her so. Whilst Roxy, the young British girl, is now queen of the drug runners, and a new drug "glitter" which enhances the power, is being shipped across Europe.

In between chapters we have some line drawings of artefacts - a reminder that this is a "history" being told from a distant future. We now understand why - for Alderman is providing us with a satirical parallel of the world we live in. Imagine: after five thousand years of a woman-led world, can you imagine a male-led one that may have existed before? I understand why she includes this - and it adds a philosophical layer to the novel but in some ways it seems awkward, unecessary. The women taking over will lead to a war - a mighty catastrophe as men, now the weaker sex, are subjugated under their female rulers.

The novel is a deserved prize winner - it adds a substantial imaginative offering to our lists of dystopian fiction, with a distinct twist to it - but though its immensely fun to read, it does at some point, move from a strange evocation of this new world into something more like a comic book or video game. By the end there's a feeling there's no real consequence - yet there is, as the major and minor characters discover - and an awkward love story adds to that sense of flippancy. It seems to lack the intense strangeness of Ben Marcus's not entirely dissimilar "The Flame Alphabet" for instance (here it is teenagers rather than girls who are different.) I think the creation of a new religion - led by Mother Eve - feels the main story in the first part of the novel, but then it just becomes one strand of several, and the least dynamic one. I guess in the desire to create a real page turning adventure and bring us to a place of satisfactory climax, we lose some of the the depth of thought and characterisation that I so loved earlier in the novel.

So, not quite a masterpiece, but certainly one of the most rewarding and readable novels I've read for some time. In an age of dystopias it seems  a particularly original one. At times its as dark as an HBO boxset and it does feel like a novel written in and for the Netflix age. The return to the framing device at the end makes explicit what we already know - that it is our known world that is the unbelievable one, not the one of the novel, where women have all the power.