Saturday, January 21, 2017

In Praise of Weird Records

The new uncut magazine has a list of 101 Weird Records. It includes a few of the normal suspects - "The Philosophy of the World" by the Shaggs for instance, but at #1 is an album that is so familiar to me, and such a beautiful listening experience, that it seems no more of a weird record than "Sgt. Pepper" or "The Who Sell Out", namely "A Wizard, a True Star" by Todd Rundgren. I've been listening to the CD its coupled with in a recent reissue, "Todd", and that's a weird is "A capella" where Todd just uses his own voice for all the instruments. Their list surprisingly includes no Robert Wyatt, and seems uncertain about whether to include oddities such as Metallica/Lou Reed's "Lulu" which are only odd in the idea, and not really in the listening.

Anyway, I've been a connoisseur of odd records all my life - this list - not in any order other than first come first served - sees oddness in different ways; the nearly unlistenable; the strange concept; even just odd pairings.

1. Leichenschrei - SPK. An industrial album that I bought in the early eighties, its still unlike anything I've ever heard. I think I hated it for ages, and then briefly it became a compelling favourite. A sonic collage - what is going on here? Voices come through the mist. "He tried to give me syphillis by wiping his cock on my sandwich," indeed.

2. The Point - Harry Nilsson. This is such a celebrated oddity that its very strange that it never makes the Uncut mix. At the height of his fame, wilful genius Nilsson came up with "The Point", a primetime American children's TV cartoon.

3. The F*** C*** Treat Us Like P*** - Flux of Pink Indians. Amongst all the CRASS-affiliated anarcho punks, Flux were amongst the most experimental. This is a near unlistenable collage piece - highly charged and political, from the title onwards. Facinating stuff.

4. End of an Ear - Robert Wyatt. There's a term "Wyatting" for putting something unlistenable on a pub jukebox. Unfair of course, for Wyatt is one of our national treasures, but he's an acquired taste - and his first solo album was an uncompromising free jazz melange - half spoken vocals, odd time signatures, you name it. Other Wyatt - from his Matching Mole albums, to "Dondestan" and "Old Rottenhat", are odd listens, but this one remains enigmatically difficult.

5. A Capella - Todd Rundgren. Giles Smith, in Lost in Music, says there's nothing so risky when going into a record shop as asking for the new Todd Rundgren album. In the 1970s and 1980s his wilfulness was legendary. A Capella takes some topping however - every sound made by Todd's voice and fed through an early sampler.

6. The Moon and the Melodies - Harold Budd/Cocteau Twins. Being a big Cocteau Twins fan in the early eighties I loved everything they did. Bit of a surprise when they did this album with ambient pianist Harold Budd.

7. Over the Rainbow - Virgin Prunes. Everything the Virgin Prunes did is odd, including their masterpiece "If I die, I die" - but this compilation of odds and sods is peculiarly so. I only have a copy because a friend bought it and hated it so much she gave it to me. The odd bits of an odd band.

8. NY Scum Haters - Psychic TV. Before they released a cavalcade of live albums came this one. Just after their wonderful "Dreams Less Sweet" - this was the unvarnished Psychic TV. PTV/Throbbing Gristle could probably fill a whole weird records list.

9. Thank You - Duran Duran. Covers albums can be things of wonder or disasters. Few manage to do both so often as this one from Duran Duran. Amongst the expected somewhat pedestrian retools of glam icons, they give us their take on Public Enemy's "911 is a joke" and Grandmaster Flash "White Lines." Wonderful/ludicrous in equal measures.

10. Peter and the Wolf - David Bowie. Forget The Laughing Gnome, Tin Machine or that godawful cover of God Only Knows, this is David Bowie's oddest release - a narration of the story of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. Of course it is.

11. Ear Candy - Helen Reddy. Actually not as odd as it should be - and a pretty decent album of late seventies soulful power pop. The oddity is that this is produced by Kim Fowley. Yes, Runaways svengali Fowley. With Helen Reddy.

12. Earth - Neil Young. Neil Young makes the Uncut list with "Trans" - odd only in that he uses vocoder - on what is one of his stronger eighties albums. "Greendale" is an odd concept album for instance, and what about "Arc" the feedback drenched companion to live album "Weld"? But I think his last live album "Earth" deserves inclusion. Pulling together songs from across his career with a "green" perspective he decides - oddly, perversely, in a way that sometimes works and sometimes is hilarious to add in sound effects to the live album e.g. crickets chirping.

13. Sympathy for the Devil - Laibach. There's a small number of albums that consist of only one song in multiple versions. This Laibach album covering the Rolling Stones album is one such. Brilliant but quixotic.

14. Beach Boys Love You - Beach Boys. There are other Beach Boys oddities - "Party" for instance with its party sound effects, or their transcendental M.I.U. Album, but Beach Boys Love You saw Brian Wilson return to the fold, virtually a solo album, and as a "where Brian's mind was at" as odd as it comes. Brilliant but if you wanted to know what he'd been up to - it had been watching Johnny Carson.

15. Johnny Yes/No Soundtrack - Cabaret Voltaire. When I was a big Cabs fan in the early eighties I did my best to buy all their new stuff - that included this mesmeric, monotonous soundtrack album.  

16. Tricks of the Shade - The Goats. A concept album about how America was going to pot and becoming a theme park for authoritarian Uncle Sam. Madcap and malevolent. 

17. Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants - Stevie Wonder. At his seventies height he recorded this mostly instrumental album. What was going on? Who knows? A near career threatening double album.

18. Gling Glo - Bjork. Before KUKL, before the Sugarcubes, before "Debut", there was "Gling Glo" - an Icelandic language jazz album sung by the young Bjork. A curiosity.

19. He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper - DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Their second album was a rap first - a double album. Given how thin most rap albums were at the time this was an impressive achievement - but filled out with scratch tracks and other less than essential pieces and never reissued in full on CD. 

20. Pander! Panda! Panzer! - Mark E. Smith. The Fall are of course highly quixotic and with the one constant of Mark E. Smith - surely a solo album should have been great? Except this and its predecessor were both "spoken word" albums, made up of text, cut ups etc. Strange even by Fall standards. 

21. A Trip to Marineville - Swell Maps. In the 80s Swell Maps, one of the more arty punk bands, had disappeared from sight, so it was years before I heard them - but what a greatly inventive band, never more so than on their debut, an avant garde post-punk mix thats well worth seeking out.

22.Préliminaires - Iggy Pop. There are many oddities in Iggy Pop's back catalogue but this album of French chanteuse songs inspired by Michel Houllebecq, is particularly odd.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates

In Richard Yates' penultimate novel "Young Hearts Crying" (1984) he revisits the fifties setting of his debut "Revolutionary Road" - the novel that brought him back into attention, and to print a few years ago, and was subsequently made into a film. In "Young Hearts Crying" Michael Davenport is an attractive, intelligent Harvard graduate, who has previously made his grade as an Airforce gunner in the tail end of the war. Davenport had a good war, and in a sense this backstory is given only as a rite of passage, but surely informs his psychology . He wants to be a published poet, but perhaps more importantly, wants girls. This is a pre-sexual revolution 1950s, and though the trappings of genteel moral codes are being stripped away, he is no Burroughsian transgressor, and falls for the first beautiful girl he finds, Lucy, a blank slate on which he can impress his longings. In turn, she is an heiress - though she hides this from Michael - who is wanting to escape from the stultifying conformities that her class and riches could bring her.

This is the America of opportunity after all - Madmen territory - but where some of the certainties that informed the Jazz age writers have disappeared. In some ways, Michael and Lucy, are less Gatsby and Carraway, and more this decades' "careless people". Art, and culture becomes the route into some kind of self-awareness, or escape. Yet, with so little jeopary in their life, this becomes - like in "Revolutionary Road" - a route only into the kind of bourgeois life they've both, in their different ways, been trying to escape. Between Fitzgerald and Franzen, their chronicler is Yates. Davenport is a complex character. Bundled into a marriage he didn't expect, his ambition outweights his talent. The short plays that were lauded at Harvard impress on him that he'll become a writer, but he supplements this, in lieu of using Lucy's money, with a copywriter job for a trade magazine. Here, in New York, him and Lucy are at the beginning of their lives - but whereas in, say, Jay McInerney, there would be the sense of an upward trajectory, Yates is the chronicler of a certain nuanced disappointment - a jaded American dream that being for "everyone", can never deliver on its promises beyond the mundane.

The Davenports have a child and move from their small flat to a pleasant suburb and Michael catches the train in every day where he meets the amiable Irish painter, Tom Nelson, whose popular canvasses are far away from the becoming fashionable "abstract expressionists." Yates is briliant at sidestepping the cliches and expectations of a novel of artists, by concentrating on these figures that will be marginalised by history one way or another. Tom has been born poor and so is exaltant in the money his popular work gives him, whilst Michael is the epitome of the minor poet, a forgotten name published by a small press rather than a public poet like Robert Lowell or a beatnik such as Ginsberg. That's not to say that Yates ignores the bohemian scene - for his other friend is an abstract expressionist painter, whose sister is a lifelong unconsummated desire for the frivolous Michael.

Around a series of carefully constructed scenes, we rediscover various characters - and introduce new ones - through a thirty year period. Still ignoring Lucy's inheritance, the Davenports move to a tiny house in the countryside near the Nelsons. Here - on an estate which is run by a group of old style theatrical types - Michael's ambition and self-loathing become more apparent as they contribute to his failing marriage. He is vicious about the gay characters hiding out here (one actor is a famous character actor who is blacklisted by McCarthy) calling the place a "fruit farm." His lack of sympathy is in itself what gives us sympathy for him as such a flawed character. His own plays get unperformed, and his poetry becomes safe and mediocre, each book receiving less attention for the first - where the long poem that concludes the book slowly becomes an American classic, and one he can never quite repeat. When the end comes for him and Lucy its no surprise, but its victim is less Lucy and their child, than Michael himself. This man-child, who is proud of his brief boxing near success in the air force, constantly wants to prove he is the better man. He is that overbearing alpha of American literature, yet whereas in Mailer or Heller, the man would become a successful bully, Yates is brilliant at creating characters who are far from predictable, whose flaws and strengths are balanced in them. Back in New York, away from his wife, he finally has a breakdown and ends up incarcerated, the heavy drinking causing him to have a number of psychotic episodes. These - almost always off stage in the novel - see him become drunk, and obnoxious and having to prove he is the best man in the room. His lack of social empathy turns out to be his great character flaw, his self-love and self-loathing combining to create a somewhat tragic character.

Yet the book is much more than that. Structurally, its surprising and elegant. The first "book" sees Michael and Lucy's life; the second follows hers after the split; and the third follows his. Lucy - freed from Michael still doesn't have an interest in the destiny of her class, money, marriage, kids, and instead she throws herself into different artistic pursuits - trying her hand as an actress, a short story writer, and eventually, an amatuer painter. We see now that her need for Michael was based upon this. Both of them seek out creative and artistic life like moths to a flame, but raw ambition on his part, and naked desire on hers, they never quite achieve what they are looking for. She finds solace in therapy, him in drink. At the same time, its now the sixties and both embark on endless affairs. For Lucy they are always sexual - her money enabling her to just throw herself in with some man and not be afraid of leaving. For Michael, he needs to be looked after, to have an adoring sexual partner. As their daughter grows up she becomes more withdrawn, and joins the hippies in California to her mother's chagrin. 

As Michael makes it into his fifties, now a lecturer at a small rural college, married to a much younger careers counsellor, he should be contented but is further away than ever. He frets over unfulfilled sexual relationships, and over the flawed male friendships he's had over the years. He finds a job back where he grew up, near Boston, and is suddenly overwhelmed when his new boss - much younger than himself - highly praises his signature poem. Meanwhile Lucy has given up her fortune and by the 1970s has thrown herself into good works for Amnesty International, probably the sort of work that a rich, educated woman of her class would have always done, had she not chased the chimera of artistic happiness.

Like all great novels - and I believe it is a great novel - its much harder to "review" than those that are more flawed, for it it the meticulousness, as well as the quality of the writing, which makes it such a compelling read. How much of the novel is autobiographical? Probably quite a lot - as Davenport is Yates's age - but he's created characters who are dialled down, rather than dialled up (Yates was briefly a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy), far from the bright lights of fame and the compelling history of mid-late 20th century American history. Like "Stoner" or the short stories of Andre Dubus, this more prosaic world is in itself compelling; for when he pulls back the curtain, Yates looks in and beyond suburban America and its inhabitants and teases out the secrets that they keep even from themselves. It's a wonderful novel.

Monday, January 09, 2017

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes has always written well about music and in his first novel since the Booker winning "The Sense of an Ending" he gives a narration of the life of Shostakovich. Made up of short, emblematic paragraphs, the novel is like a diary, so though we were in Shostakovich's head and sensibility at all times, its written from the third person. This gives the novel both an intimacy and a distance. The intimacy works because this is an artist in extremis, under Stalin's Russia, whilst the distance sometimes means that Barnes overwrites or over explains what is happening. I guess there's a difficulty with an obvious historical fiction where we are trying to be in the protagonists head - yet that wasn't a problem in "Wolf Hall" or even "The Damned United" - so I think that uneasiness between the two modes is partly because Barnes' Shostakovich is both knowable and unknowable.

The novel starts with an anecdote. Two men on a train during the war. The train stops unexpectedly. The two men get off and share a vodka with an amputed beggar on the station. The scene is strange, gnomic. It doesn't pretend to know who the other man is, or the beggar, or even where they stopped. This allusiveness has a purpose. We are drawn into the head of Shostakovich, a man who is so enveloped in his music, that he doesn't have the mental space to consider what is happening around him. Or rather, the thing happening around him, the purges, the show trials, the displays of power, has so little to do with music - and yet he finds, under Stalin there is nothing more untrue. The music has everything to do with this. A review in a newspaper of his Shakespearean opera calls his music a "muddle" - its not even a review, but an editorial. Shostakovich, Russia's premier composer, is suddenly a persona non grata. In his flat he waits each night on the stairway with his suitcase packed, so that when they take him away they won't disturb his wife and child.

Barnes' novel is brilliant at setting out this claustrophobia, this fear, this sense of uncertainty. The culture of Stalin's Russia is one that makes nobody safe, not for long. Worse than being denounced almost, is being favoured, for being favoured is no guarantee. Whereas after the Russian revolution art and music flourished for a while, by the 1930s there is a new sense - where all art has to be for the benefit of the revolution, and for the common man. Like Mao's Cultural Revolution later in the century, or the killing fields of Cambodia, the 20th century communist ideal found no room for art that it considered bourgeois. Ordinary Russians would whistle his "Song of the Counterplan", a piece of film music that accompanied a Soviet-realist art but by the time of his 5th composers were also on the frontline of Stalin's all encompassing power. :Lesser composers disappeared, greater ones fled the country to America. Yet Shostakovich stayed. He wrote the "patriotic" "Leningrad" - his 7th symphony - and his stock rose. The book flits back and forth in time. The first part - where he is suddenly at risk, his music denounced, is powerful, the more so for their being little back story or context. This is a Kafkaesque tale of a man suddenly at the whim of "power". (Barnes talks about Shostakovich's 3 conversations with - capitalised - Power.)

It feels a very current novel. Wasn't Pussy Riot's incarceration a canary in the coalmine of Putin's Russia's new religious-backed authoritarianism. There are echoes throughout history of strong men cracking down on not just political dissent but perceived artistic dissent. In this hall of mirrors Wagner is disallowed until the Hitler-Stalin pact and then he is played, before being disallowed again. On a trip to America, Shostakovich is given a script in which he denounces - amongst others - Stravinsky, his musical idol. The Russian system is so debased that the only people who can buy musical manuscript are those approved by an officially sanctioned composers' union. How to explain this control to a west where - after the war - certain on the left will forgive Stalin anything, because he is not a fascist?

The short book gives a real good sense of the paranoia of the age; our Shostakovich tells something of his own history - his own loves and life are sketched out. It feels a not entirely successful telling however, - that distance that comes in, where Barnes interjects and lets us know some of the backdrop. An always consummate novelist, latterly - in this, and in "The Sense of an Ending" - he sometimes proscribes too much, and sometimes, for effect, holds things back. A more knowing Shostakovich might have been a more useful narrator. The real thing - the creation of the music is offstage - yet there are hints at his genius; that opening anecdote is returned to. "The noise of time" is referred to portentously on occasion.

You almost need to read the book with a biography of the composer next to you, and the "Leningrad" on repeat. It's a fine, tantalising novel, well written, engaging, but which perhaps doesn't quite succeed in its ambitious retelling of this tale. There is much atmosphere, and the sense of foreboding of Stalin and then Krushchev's Russia is compelling, but I'm not sure its much more than a very elegant exercise at the end of the day. Yet that's probably fine as well, as the prose does offer a little bit of music of its own. The short block paragraphs are like a musical score, and our Shostakovich can hear the music in his head, and in turn, we can hear his voice in ours.