Monthly Archives: March 2014

May you one day carry me home

29. Oh My Sweet Carolina – Ryan Adams

There was an incongruity to it, the contrast between the man shuffling on stage, unkempt hair, scruffy, and the surroundings. He almost looked lost, a tiny figure sat with his guitar, a piano to one side, accompanied by a cellist, dwarfed by the Royal Festival Hall with its capacity to house an orchestra; a vast open space purpose designed (not entirely successfully) to accommodate sound and music.

With scarcely a word or barely so much as a glance at us, the audience, he began to play, picking out the opening notes to “Oh My Sweet Carolina”. The expectant chatter that had broken into appreciative applause as he’d made his way on to the stage died instantly. There was a collective holding of breath as he began:

Well I went down to Houston and I stopped in San Antone
I passed up the station for the bus

Was trying to find me something but I wasn’t sure just what
Man I ended up with pockets full of dust

The words exhaled softly, quietly into the microphone, fingers methodically working the neck of his guitar. He seemed lost in it, oblivious to us, absorbed in some personal meditation on homesickness and another of those tales of a lost soul looking for a way back that country music does so well. We were lost in it too, the audience given over in a kind of reverie, astonishingly still and silent and rapt.

So I went on to Cleveland and I ended up insane
Bought a borrowed suit and learned to dance

I was spending money like the way it likes to rain
Man I ended up with pockets full of ‘caine

Just voice and guitar was holding us, the entire room transfixed. I’d seen him do this before, first time I saw him play was at the Lyric in Hammersmith, a pokey old theatre with maybe a hundred of us there. He’d been a little difficult that night, almost affectedly pulling open note books, propping them up on his music stand, puffing on endless cigarettes, ignoring the crowd despite the intimacy of the venue for the first half of the set. It was either someone extremely insecure, stumbling through stage fright, or someone desperate to project their cast iron credentials as an artist. Perhaps it was both. The set was largely made up of the songs from “Heartbreaker” which is such a bruisingly honest and raw record that I guess it might not be easy to lay yourself that bare on stage, particularly on such a small stage with nowhere to hide. Whatever it was something magical happened that night when he played “Come Pick Me Up” and he and us in the audience softly seemed to find some catharsis in its bitter lament to betrayal. It was the first- but not last – time that I thought he was absolutely the real deal.

Oh my sweet Carolina
What compels me to go ?

Oh my sweet disposition
May you one day carry me home

I’d seen the other Ryan Adams too, the rock n roll version. In those early stages post Whiskeytown, solo, it was as if he wanted to be Gram Parsons and The Rolling Stones at the same time; a one person embodiment of the Exile sessions both in terms of music and lifestyle. Just before “Gold” broke in the UK I saw him at Shepherd’s Bush Empire backed by a full band – a full band purpose built to replicate that early 70s Stones sound, or even a country leaning E Street Band. It wasn’t quite Dylan going electric but there was definitely a mixed reaction in the crowd – in particular the saxophonist divided opinion, filling in the harmonica parts from both “Heartbreaker” and “Gold” with horn. I loved it but then he was riffing on two reference points – in Springsteen and the Stones – that I adore so it was easy for me to hear it all as a straight extension of his country (or Americana if you insist) roots into R&B and rock and roll. For others it was apparently some kind of betrayal or sell out – the purity lost in chasing some notion of being a star. To me it just looked like he was going where his muse took him and having a ton of fun. By the close he had everyone pretty much back on side, closing with what became his famous cover of Wonderwall, which eventually even the song’s writer, Noel Gallagher, acknowledged was improved in Adams‘ reading of it. Again, I left, convinced of his genuine greatness.

I ain’t never been to Vegas but I gambled all my life
Building news print votes I raced in sewer mains
I was trying to find me something but I wasn’t sure just what
Funny how they say that some things never change

“Gold” and “Heartbreaker” were huge records for me in the early 00s as was, latterly, the two parts of “Love Is Hell” (another painfully beautiful record, so raw it’s practically an open wound). In particular “Gold”‘s lead track “New York New York” will always place me driving home, picking my way into West London from Hertfordshire, skirting Heathrow, on September 11th, 2001, anxiously and acutely aware of the eerily empty skies above me. It was chance, of course, that Adams had recorded an open love letter to the city that had become his adopted home, chance that repeated as the video for the track was recorded four days before 911: the entire film features Adams playing the song with the Manhattan skyline as his backdrop, the Twin Towers dominating every frame. It became a song of defiance and will always be lodged in my memory in association with that day alongside Springsteen’s “My City Of Ruins”.

Oh my sweet Carolina
What compels me to go
Oh my sweet disposition
May you one day carry me home

Back in the Festival Hall I am experiencing something akin to a religious awakening. I don’t think I’ve taken a breath since the song began, haven’t moved a muscle, as if changing anything – the slightest disruption – could shatter this fragile, delicate piece of music. It sounds like a direct expression of the deepest, saddest longing I’ve ever heard and he’s creating it right in front of me.

For me Adams never quite touched those early heights (or possibly depths) again but, in a way, I’m glad. His early work speaks of such overwhelming pain and unhappiness that I suspect the alternative path his life might have taken – alternative to continuing as a respected singer songwriter, settling down, cleaning up – would have been for his life to end. If there was a likely candidate to join “that stupid club” along with Kurt and Jeff and Jimi and Janis and Jim then he was it. I’m glad he didn’t and I still greatly enjoy his music. Perhaps it’s not quite as personal to me now as it was but he still has the capacity to floor me – witness the more recent performance of “Oh My Sweet Carolina” with Laura Marling filling in admirably for Emmylou Harris that you can find here. It is a fabulous thing indeed.

Up here in the city it feels like things are closing in
The sunset’s just my light bulb burning out
I miss Kentucky and I miss my family
All the sweetest winds they blow across the South

Memory is imperfect. Funnily enough one of the themes in writing this particular series of posts is that I believe that specific songs are strong anchors of a certain time and place, strong signifiers of what I was experiencing and feeling at the time. It’s possible to hear a recording of “Oh My Sweet Carolina” from that night in November 2002 at the Royal Festival Hall – you can stream it here if you’re so inclined or you can read closer-to-the-moment reviews of the gig here and here. It’s interesting how many details were wrong in my memory. In my first draft of this post he didn’t acknowledge the audience at all before playing – he actually directly spoke to us. I’d forgotten the cello completely. The song does play out to silence but it’s not quite as instant as the version in my mind (it’s still pretty impressive for a London audience who, often times as not, seem to love their own conversation as much as what is happening on stage).

The spirit of it is right though. The intensity of a moment in which he conjured something breathtakingly, heart achingly beautiful; a tender yearning for the safety of home. All delivered by the unassuming, slightly dishevelled man playing, stripped back and exposed, in that grand and imposing space.

Oh my sweet Carolina
What compels me to go
Oh my sweet disposition
May you one day carry me home
May you one day carry me home

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Everything is broken… phew, for a minute there I lost myself…

28. The Bends / OK Computer – Radiohead

Me and Radiohead go way back. We first met when they were supporting, believe it or not, The Cranberries at Leicester University who were touring off the back of “Linger”. I’d like to believe that I had my finger so firmly on the pulse that I was only there because I’d been tipped off about Radiohead but I suspect it was more that I went to pretty much every gig at the University that year. Sometimes this unearthed a gem (Maria McKee) and sometimes it didn’t (T’pau). In this case it did both. For avoidance of doubt The Cranberries were not the gem.

So the first time I heard “Creep” was at that gig. It’s impossible to recreate now as the song is too entrenched in memory but that first time that Jonny Greenwood’s guitar went into spasm, that stab of distortion into the chorus, was a real jaw dropper. It was visually arresting too, him hunched over his telecaster, slung low, face covered by his hair as it fell forwards, and then this twitching, violent slash over the strings and a burst of white noise erupting. The wannabe rock star in me took copious notes. The only thing I actually pulled off was the telecaster. Maybe the hair.

I also distinctly remember the first time I heard “Paranoid Android” I was stuck in traffic on the outskirts of Liverpool, making my way there for something related to my job at the time working for Boots – back in the days when radio got first play of a song. It’s still vivid for me because the song was astonishing on first listen: those snaking, sinewy verses, tense chorus that hints at some terrible future peril (in so much as it is a chorus) before the build into the off kilter solo and gorgeous break down into the defeated, resigned “rain down” section. It’s still astonishing now. Whisper it but it’s kind of a prog record although I don’t recall much of the cooler-than-thou indie press reporting it as such at the time.

Shortly after that I eagerly purchased “OK Computer” on its day of release – a Monday lunch time mooch around either HMV or Virgin (as was) or Selectadisc in the centre of Nottingham was very much my routine then. That evening I lay on my bed, put my headphones on, closed my eyes and listened to it straight through. It was an event. I sort of miss the days when a record release was an event for me. There was something almost ritualistic to it. The album didn’t disappoint and its over arching themes of a vague pre millennial anxiety and sense of displaced unease resonated strongly with me at the time; echoes of that sense still resonate strongly with me now.

The record sandwiched in the middle of all of this – post “Creep”, pre “OK Computer” – was “The Bends”. Released in 1995 it caught me post graduation, recently moved to Nottingham, trying to figure out what to do with myself. It also largely sound tracked the disintegration of two relationships that were important to me; both of which I can look back on now with fondness but these songs are forever attached to their messy ends. In many respects both records are associated with a time of unhappiness, or at least, a time of uncertainty. In that period I had no idea what I wanted to do (plus ca change…), was clinging on to the idea that old relationships might still work, and gradually became separated from most of my friends who were largely living (and living large) in London. I was scraping by in a job I didn’t really want, sharing a house with people I didn’t really know, and spending any money I did have on train fares to the big smoke. It’s not really a surprise that two albums, more or less book marking the beginning and end of this time in my life, that major in themes of alienation, listlessness, torpor, and a twitchy anxiety should have been so important to me. I probably should have spent three years sitting in a back corner of The Salutation reading Camus. I didn’t. I think I spent it sitting in one of the five homes I had during that time watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It’s angst, Jim, but not as we know it.

In 1997 they headlined Glastonbury. I was, by that point, a regular festival goer and had enjoyed the previous few years in blazing sunshine at Reading, Glastonbury, and the short lived Phoenix festival near Stratford. Had enjoyed the sun so much that for Glasto ’97 a small group of us decided to arrive at the festival site on the Wednesday (it usually ran Friday to Sunday) to soak up the atmosphere, chill out, have a little mini holiday. It basically threw it down for five days, the site turned into a swamp, and we spent our time turning bin liners into makeshift rain coats: it was miserable. Somewhere in amongst the mud though Radiohead closed the Saturday night and it was possibly the finest live performance I’ve ever seen, certainly in the top three. There was an intensity to it, and in the reaction of the audience, that happens rarely and very rarely for me at an outdoor gig. There was a real buzz around the festival ahead of their performance as “OK Computer” was pretty well cemented as album of the year and it turned into one of those very special events, almost a shared communion, between audience and band. Quite a bit of it is on YouTube: here. Inevitably it doesn’t convey the atmosphere – the palpable electricity in the air – but there’s a sense of the intensity.

There’s a bit at 18.30 on that YouTube clip which I remember clear as day when Thom Yorke asks for the stage lights to be turned on the crowd: somewhere in that heaving throng was a 25 year old me. I watched that headline set on my own. Surrounded by thousands of people, obviously, but alone. I was at Glastonbury with a bunch of friends but I deliberately took myself off to watch that performance by myself. I had a strong sense that it would be a deeply personal experience for me and, in some respects, an intensely sad experience. Sad might be the wrong word. It would be  – and was – a deeply emotional experience, a space where those songs would connect directly to feelings that were tucked away, hidden, and give them expression. It was a year or two characterized by loneliness and I knew that the songs that would make up their set would speak to that. I remember I wanted it to be a private experience – laughable as that seems in the churning throng – but I wonder now why I wanted it to be private. I wonder now whether I might not have been better off watching it with my friends, telling them I wasn’t happy, and sharing it all.

Within the next six months the relationship I was in was over, which was better for both us, I left my job in Nottingham, and started again in London.

……

That bit about “maybe” pulling off Jonny Greenwood’s look / hair. I didn’t. I was that skinny then though. Thems were the days…

Just Write: Week 8, 17th March – part 2

door

I opened the door and stepped inside. Shut it tight behind me. Shut all of it out.

The room was empty. Four grey, stone walls, with matching floor and ceiling. A single blue door facing me in the opposing wall, identical to the one I’d just shut behind me. I crossed the floor towards it.

I opened the door and stepped inside. Shut it tight behind me. Shut all of it out. Went further inside.

This room was also empty. Four grey, stone walls, with matching floor and ceiling. It was a little darker than the previous one, the only light pervading from the cracks around the door behind me, less light leaking through to this room than the one before. Otherwise it was a replica. A single blue door facing me in the opposing wall, identical to the one I’d just shut behind me. I crossed the floor towards it.

I opened the door and stepped inside. Shut it tight behind me. Shut all of it out. Went further inside. Further beyond reach.

The third room was empty. Four grey, stone walls, with matching floor and ceiling. The light was faint now, a pale glow describing a rectangle behind me, thin tendrils reaching into the room ahead. Enough to see that there was nothing to see except the familiar single blue door facing me in the opposing wall, identical to the one I’d just shut behind me. I crossed the floor towards it.

I opened the door and stepped inside. Shut it tight behind me. Shut all of it out. Went further inside. Further beyond reach and reason.

The fourth room – was it the fourth room – was empty. Four grey, stone walls, with matching floor and ceiling. It was quite dark now, the brief illumination as the door opened quickly fading. It didn’t matter as there was nothing to see, nothing here. Reflexively I crossed the floor towards where I know will be a single blue door in the opposing wall, identical to the one I’d just shut behind me.

I opened the door and stepped inside. Shut it tight behind me. Shut all of it out. Went further inside. Further beyond reach and reason. Was this far enough to be safe ? Or was this too far to come back ?

The next room, number five or six or seven, was also empty. Pitch dark and silent and empty. I had no reason to believe there was anything other than four grey, stone walls, with matching floor and ceiling. A single blue door in the opposing wall, identical to the one I’d just shut behind me, would be there if I was compelled to go further. This far in it was easy to lose orientation: was this further in or the way out ? If I wanted to get out could I find the way ? It is easy to find a way in here, there’s enough light to find a way in to the darkness, but so much harder to come out when the darkness has stolen the light. I hadn’t intended to come this far. A blue door in the opposing wall or is it the blue door in the original wall ?

I opened the door and stepped inside.

……

I have cheated a little here. This isn’t the piece that I wrote in Monday’s writing class but it is the piece that I wanted to write. I’ve posted it without rereading or editing so I may well look back at it and hate it but this was broadly what I wanted to write. The class revolved (pun possibly intended) around a set of pictures of doors – we had to pick one, make some initial notes of ideas it suggested to us, and then write a short piece.

I had a number of ideas but zeroed in on this door pretty much immediately and also knew pretty much immediately that what it suggested to me was a series of rooms that were all identical, repeating, with someone (me) disappearing further and further into them. It was a fairly straightforward metaphor for depression.

However, I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to commit to that in the general bonhomie of the last-lesson-of-term and we only had about ten minutes… So instead I wrote a cheery piece on the idea of being tortured in some far flung prison, loosely inspired by Abu Ghraib. It’s not the sort of thing I’d usually write and I don’t think it’s that good to be honest but, I guess, that’s in part because my heart wasn’t really in it. Anyway, for posterity here it is (I would definitely lose the last line looking at it again):

Just before they shoved me inside the blindfold was ripped from my face. Harsh sunlight pierced my skull and I reflexively shut my eyes, the light playing across the inside of my lids even after they were closed.

A foot in the back of my knee forced me to kneel before I was urged back to my feet. I reached out my arm for purchase and grabbed at the door; a cool blue in a blank stone wall of grey. The door opened and I staggered in, managing two steps before sinking to my knees again. Adjusting to the relative gloom I blinked and glanced around, tried to take in where I was. It was a dark, square space, illuminated from behind me by the light streaming in through the door and ahead by a solitary bulb suspended from the ceiling. It hung above a simple metal chair in the middle of the stone floor. There was no other furniture save a large, deep sink on one wall, the tap dripping and with water pooling beneath from some rusted, leaking pipe. My eyes followed the shape of the pool as it edged into the room, finally reaching a carelessly tossed towel. The towel was stained red with something.

I was dragged back to my feet, weakly protesting, struggling in vain as they pulled me to the chair. Through the terror I realised the towel was stained with blood.

Just Write: Week 8, 17th March – part 1

I’m splitting week 8 (final week of this term, *sobs quietly and wonders what to do on a Monday night*) into two parts as per last week. Not in any way because I think it is going to drive a sudden explosion in page views – it didn’t last week – but because I think the posts are a little more digestible.

Homework from week 7 was to visit a place that you regularly walked past (or knew of) but never went into and then try to capture how that made you feel. I thought this one worked out quite well but I am rarely best placed to judge my own work… so let me know what you think:

I expected it to feel like the 1980s; a place out of time. Not the 1980s of gaudy excess, streamers on Top Of The Pops, city boys with braces, but the 80s that was still shaking off the dowdiness of the late 70s.

Wimpy. Didn’t they all close ? Weren’t they seen off by McDonalds and Burger King and the caffeinated tidal wave of coffee chains that have flooded UK high streets for the last ten years ? Yet here it is in Amersham. It’s not the most likely place I’d expected to see it – not that I expect to see them anywhere anymore. Wimpy is frozen in memory for me as an unspecified place along the A1 – one of those unassuming service stops at a place like Newark or Grantham before we got the quasi-theme parks every twenty miles along the motorway that we have now. It used to be a straight choice between stopping now or holding out until Doncaster where there might be a Little Chef. This was Little Chef before Heston tried to infuse it with a certain culinary scientific sophistication; Little Chef when the choice of pineapple ring or fried egg on top of your gammon was sophistication enough. Heston hasn’t come a-knocking for Wimpy. Nor Gordon. Not even Jamie it seems.

It does feel a little like the 80s. Pushing open the door and stepping inside is a bit like stepping back into childhood. This used to be a treat, before we were convinced that getting a burger in a poly urethane box was more of a treat than getting one on a plate. The décor evidently hasn’t changed for thirty years, fake formica topped tables and wooden chairs. The chairs have taken on an aged, distressed look that, ironically, would now see them right at home in the fashionable coffee come lifestyle emporium Harris & Hoole a few doors up. The back lit menu above the counter looks much as I remember it as a kid, excepting the “mozzarella melts”. I’m pretty sure we didn’t know what mozzarella was back then, back when Chicken Kiev was the height of exotica. 

Behind the counter a beautiful, vintage Conti coffee machine rises proudly, all reds and polished steel. It faces off against a similarly old Carpigiani ice cream maker – you’d ask for a Mr Whippy, not a Carpigiani. They’re both immaculate, spotless, and have clearly been well tended these last few decades. It’s hard to shake the nagging, slightly sad, feeling that they will remain immaculate now as much from lack of use as from care. Where does Wimpy belong in a world of Baskin Robbins and Costa and the we-all-live-in-a-Manhattan-loft boho chic of Harris & Hoole ? My daughter has never once asked to go into the Wimpy on Amersham high street. Why would she ? There are no “happy meals” – registered trademark – here although I remember many happy meals in them when I was young. And me ? I’ve lived here seven years and this is my first time in. I’m only here to do my homework – the very act of which is itself a nudge towards the nostalgia of childhood that the entire experience evokes – and to be honest the coffee’s not great and I’m getting too old to eat bacon and egg rolls that often in the morning. I certainly can’t blame anyone for preferring the pretense of a Manhattan loft lifestyle to an 80s British bedsit either – I prefer it, this is absolutely not a rose tinted look back at some glorious forgotten past. Would we all rather hang out in Central Perk with Rachel and Joey than in Sid’s Café with Del Boy and Rodney ? The evidence up and down the high streets of the land suggests that we would.

There is something wonderfully incongruous though about Amersham’s Wimpy. It makes no sense – the brand is essentially dead, the town’s demographics are all wrong and there’s tons of competition – but it’s still there clinging on. I doubt I’ll go in again but I like that it’s there, a mental shortcut to days when burgers on plates was a treat. To childhood.

Just Write: Week 7, 10th March – part 2

Week 7 of this term’s writing class pulled together a few of the themes from the last three or four weeks and focussed on one slightly larger exercise than usual. We all, without a huge amount of thought, came up with four potential characters – just name, age, and profession – which gave us a selection of about 30 to choose from. We picked two and then had to write three scenes – or, effectively, two scenes and a brief ending – with some direction.

First up was a scene in which the two characters are at either a wedding or funeral, second was the start of the overall story, and finally a few lines that suggested the ending of the story. We didn’t know about parts 2 and 3 before writing part 1 and, ultimately, we read back the work in chronological order (i.e. part 2 before part 1) rather than as written. I’ve reproduced here in the order it was written, however.

So I picked Joy, a 34 year old book shop owner, and Grace, a 21 year old student. This is what they got up to:

It was on occasions like this that Joy was given to rue her name. There was something toe curlingly embarrassing about introducing herself at a funeral:

“Hi, I’m Joy”.

There was no getting past it, no matter how sad she made her face, how remorseful her follow up words, there it was. “Joy”. On the least joyous occasion.

She was loitering near to the edge of the room, trying not to make eye contact with anyone, desperate to avoid an introduction. It was worse here – she’d barely known the guy, he just used to come into the shop pretty regularly. An avid comic reader she remembered. Thought it was graphic novels now she’d asked him once, you know “all grown up” she’d added with a smile. Apparently not. Comics, he’d declared, boldly reclaiming the word from her projections of childhood and the Beano and all that stuff. She’d barely known him but his wife had come to the shop, said it was his favourite place and asked her to come.

Just then she was startled away from her thoughts by a young woman entering the room just next to her. She’d somehow caught her foot on the small step on the way in and tumbled forwards, landing at Joy’s feet.

“God, are you alright ?” said Joy extending her hand, pulling the woman up.

“Yeah, yeah. How embarrassing !” said the woman.

“I’m…” Joy hesitated. “I’m Joy”. An apologetic smile.

“Thanks Joy, hi” said the woman, extending a hand. “I’m Grace.”

……

“No, no, no !” Grace exclaimed. “It just couldn’t happen.”

“It would !” retorted her uncle, turning back to the pile of comics on the table. “There’s precedent Grace.”

“Precedent ?” she snorted.

“Yeah ! There was that arc where the Marvel guys came in to the DC universe…”

“That was just money” she cut him off. “DC did it chasing sad old fan boys like you !” Her uncle cheerily winked at her. “Just money.”

“So you really don’t think Bruce Banner would team up with Bruce Wayne ?”

She rolled her eyes. She knew he was just teasing but they both loved these conversations, she wasn’t sure when they’d stumbled on a shared love of superheroes and the fantastic but it had kept them close now for a long time.

“Wayne’s a loner. Banner’s a loner. They work alone.” It was her final word. Almost her final word. “Besides, one argument and you’ve got the Hulk smashing up the Bat Cave and trashing all that hi tech gadgetry. Never gonna happen.”

Her uncle raised his hands in supplication, accepting defeat, and delighting in the act they’d created, each of them playing their part so well. Sometimes he thought it was all he had.

……

She found it tucked in his oldest pile of comics; she’d been leafing through, inhaling the dusty pages, remembering him. The pink piece of A4 fell out, a single name written in the middle under her birth date: Grace Jenkins.

The room flipped as she caught sight of her father’s name.

……

I enjoyed this exercise albeit I felt the results were a little mixed. I was pretty pleased with my first piece – okay the play on the character’s names is arguably a little trite but I thought it worked quite nicely. However, having made my characters meet in the funeral scene and, consequently, making it feel like the beginning of the story, I was then a little thrown by the instruction to make the second piece the actual start of the story. The outcome was that I pretty much jettisoned Joy altogether and it turned into Grace’s story and her, as it transpires, father (uncle). I didn’t intend that at the outset – it was making itself up as it went along.

Second scene works less well for me. I don’t know where the comic thing came from in the first scene and I kind of ran with it in the second. I’m not sure I’d stick with it if I was revisiting the piece overall. It was interesting though (to me) that I ended up with what was essentially a close father / daughter relationship that hints at some deep sadness to come – well, not really hints, he ends up dead. Fairly big hint. This is at the heart of the bigger story idea I have with the character of Emily from the last couple of weeks.

So, not an unmitigated disaster… but still not quite right in terms of the tone I’m looking for. Last week of term next week. Not long to get it right (fortunately there are more terms to come…).

Just Write: Week 7, 10th March – part 1

Another snappy title… but I haven’t thought of anything pithy to replace it yet. Next term, next term. It’s hardly as if this site is optimised for search anyway…

Have divided week 7 of the writing class into two as there was a fair amount of writing. Part one then covers the homework from last time; writing trigger was simply “No”, he said. Again we were supposed to write early in the week and edit later. Again there was a reasonable amount of the former and relatively little of the latter. I did, however, find that what I’d written fitted together with something else that I had from a few months ago and both pieces spend some more time with Emily, whom we met a couple of posts ago. She’s in there somewhere although I’m still not sure she’s coming out quite the way she is in my head. Anyway, feedback and comments very welcome as this may – may – be part of a bigger piece eventually. Here ’tis:

“No”, he said. He always said no and she’d almost given up asking.

“Come on Wil, why can’t we just try it ? It’s only one song.”

“We don’t play country music Em. I don’t know how many times we have to go through this. It’s not what we’re about.”

“It’s not country Wil” she half heartedly protested. “I’d say it’s more Americana.”

“Americana ?” he sneered back. “That’s what you have at Starbucks isn’t it ?”. He grinned smugly at his own joke and, not for the first time in recent months, Emily wanted to slap him.

“So what are we about then ?” she said instead, pretending to ignore his ridiculous pun.

The smile vanished from Wil’s face immediately; there was nothing he took more seriously than the band. Emily couldn’t decide if he was more annoying when he was trying to be funny or when he was deadly serious.

“Suburban alienation” he declared solemnly.

Emily strongly suspected that the most suburban alienation he’d ever experienced had been when the guy in Tesco Express had taken one look at his fake ID and refused to sell him a bottle of Strongbow but she played along.

“Alienation ?”

“Yeah, alienation. In the suburbs.”

“The suburban bit is important ?” she enquired, tilting her head, bemused. He mistook it for a doe eyed expression of puzzlement and genuine interest.

“Oh god yeah. It’s like everyone in this town is sleeping, not really alive. I don’t belong here Em, I belong in the city but I’m trapped. That’s why I had to start the band, to try to wake everyone up from their sad and cosy lives.”

In ten minutes he would actually belong in double chemistry but Emily resisted the temptation to remind him.

“I’m not destined for Leighton Buzzard” he finished, moodily staring into the middle distance.

“That’s what I’m talking about.” Emily decided to try one last time. “Let’s do a Whiskeytown song. It’s about escape. They’re all about escape those songs…”

“Did The Clash sing country ?” he asked

“I guess not” she sighed. “But they did embrace a lot of styles…”

“We’re not doing it Em. MK Ultra will never be some hillbilly country hick band”.

…… 

“Play something !”

The shout came from someone at the bar, a regular maybe. The crowd were impatient now, sensing that the band perhaps weren’t about to usher in “a rock and roll liberation from comfortable suburban mediocrity” as the posters outside the pub proclaimed. Emily looked out at the audience and wasn’t convinced that they wanted liberating anyway; there were only five people there and she had a sense that the only mediocrity on offer was currently being served up by the band.

“Play something !” hissed a voice to her left. It was Wil, singer and guitarist in MK Ultra. The name had been his idea (“MK Ultra, like the FBI mind control experiments, like extreme Milton Keynes”) but he’d even got that wrong, she thought, it was the CIA not the FBI. The posters had been his idea too – emblazoned with “wake up Milton Keynes” across the top above a picture of Che Guevera, that suburban mediocrity quote running across the bottom. Emily remembered him picking them up from a local printers (“they need to look professional”) and then helping him add the band’s name by hand; he’d forgotten to include it.

Wil was crouched on his haunches trying to untangle a broken string from his guitar. They’d been half way through a cover of the Manics’ “If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next” which Wil had sarcastically dedicated to the educational establishment of the Greater Bucks area, before his top E string had snapped, bringing the song lurching to a halt.

“We can’t play anything” Emily hissed back. “What are we going to do with just bass and drums ?” She was the band’s reluctant bassist as Wil had insisted that she couldn’t play guitar and she had gone along with it, content to stay out of the spotlight. The five members of the audience had turned their attention back to the bar, a couple of them talking amongst themselves. One of them finished up his pint and began to pull on a coat.

“Come on Em, do something” muttered Wil, briefly looking up from his unsuccessful attempts to re-string. He looked desperate. Playing in Milton Keynes had been a big deal for him. Besides none of the pubs in Leighton Buzzard would let them play anymore.

“I only know country songs, remember ?”

Wil frowned but recognised that the tangle of guitar string that had now managed to wrap itself around his wrist was going to take a while to sort out.

“About escape, yeah ?”

“Yes”, she said, her heart suddenly accelerating. He gestured with his head towards his acoustic guitar propped up beside his amp.

“Just don’t introduce it, okay ?” he said. Then added, “or, if you do, then say it’s Americana.”

Walk tall… or baby don’t walk at all

27. Incident On 57th Street / Rosalita / New York City Serenade – Bruce Springsteen

I was recently tipped off by a friend that Springsteen was making most of his current run of shows available as official bootlegs for the princely sum of £6. Given that most of his current shows are running to three hours or more that’s a pretty fair deal. At a point in his career when he could be forgiven for slowing down, or even stopping following the deaths of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, Springsteen seems as alive, more alive maybe, than he has in the last twenty years. The loss of Federici and Clemons has prompted a shuffling of the E Street Band’s line up, its ranks swelling with the addition of a full horn complement, string section on many dates, and Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine on guitar – as if Nils Lofgren, Steve Van Zandt, and Springsteen himself isn’t a stellar enough line up already. The current band is phenomenal. Of course, it always was.

The Brisbane show on the current tour features a complete run through of “The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle”, Springsteen’s second record, and the one that prefaced his eventual break through with “Born To Run”. I am a massive fan of that album and it contains my favourite run of three songs straight on any record: the whole of side two covering “Incident On 57th Street”, through “Rosalita” and finishing with “New York City Serenade”. None of the songs clocking in beneath seven minutes but none of them outstaying their welcome. Springsteen was never this – excuse the obvious lift – wild again, rushing headlong into a myriad of musical ideas, embracing styles, trying anything and everything (virtually all of it working). All he learned gigging the Jersey shore is here. All his influences sucked in – Dylan, Van Morrison, jazz, latin, R&B, gospel, straight up rock and roll – and spat back out across three songs that are almost heroic in their ambition and scope. There is more invention here than most artists achieve in their lives; Springsteen crammed it into twenty four minutes.

I adore “Wild, Innocent…” for its sheer hubris. It’s a young man’s record, before age and experience reins in some of its excess. Ten minute jazz rock work out ? Yeah, why shouldn’t I do that ? “West Side Story” ? I could reimagine that. If I’m going to serenade New York then why not nod back to Gershwin with a dramatic, classical piano intro ? All of this, eventually, was tightened up, compressed and finessed, onto the record that became “Born To Run”, every note worked and worked until it was perfect, but I don’t think he could have gotten there without stretching out on the sprawling “Wild, Innocent…” first.

So, for me, the Brisbane show is telling. A much older man revisiting a young man’s record and, arguably, his most diverse record musically. For the most part it’s a pretty straight run, not quite a direct recreation of the album but not far off (which, don’t get me wrong, takes some serious chops to pull off). Then, towards the end of “Incident On 57th Street”, Springsteen launches into the climactic solo and something magical happens. It begins in very similar style to the record but then he finds a gorgeous new sequence, a series of intricate, melodic runs that aren’t there in 1973. It’s a really small moment but it lifts the whole run through of the album for me, beautiful evidence that his creative spark is still firing forty years later. Not for the first time he moved me to tears – happy tears – when I heard it. It’s like a thirty second salvo against fading away into old age, not just because technically and physically it’s a pretty astonishing piece to play, but because he’s still finding new things and creating new moments.

It’s a measure of my love and admiration for Springsteen that I believe I could run a list of songs, in parallel to this one, filled entirely with 42 of his records. Perhaps that’s an idea for another time. He deals in songs of joy, songs of pain, songs that demand you get up and dance, songs that ask you to sit down and reflect. There’s shade and light and tears and smiles. Fear, hope, truth, anger, remorse. And redemption. Almost always redemption.

In short all human experience and life is here. All of my life is here. It’s no accident that last year Springsteen inspired a documentary film – “Springsteen & I” – which specifically deals with people’s – his fans’ – relationship to his music. If his music touches you (and I accept that he’s an artist that doesn’t resonate for everyone) then he connects in a way unlike anyone else currently working, arguably ever working, in rock music. I use “rock” music as lazy shorthand for the eclectic stew of rock, pop, jazz, latin, soul, folk, country, blues, hell-pretty-much-whatever, that characterises his songs over the past forty or so years. I’d originally written some of this post immediately after the Dylan one (here) as there’s common ground between the two and Dylan was a hugely important influence on Springsteen. I buy the argument that without Dylan there would be no Springsteen, certainly not as we know him, but I don’t buy the argument that Dylan is the greater artist (in so much as I buy that any artist is “greater” than another, it’s not really a competition). The fundamental difference between them I think is that Dylan has no interest in being understood whereas everything Springsteen does is about making a connection, about finding a way for the themes in his songs to be recognised.

So here’s what I take from those three songs now: the willful naivety of youth and its capacity to get stuff done, just for the sheer pleasure of doing it, and the fact that age and experience needn’t deaden that capacity. Play them and walk tall.

……

This post ended up being a little light on Rosalita – officially the most fun you can have listening to a song ever – and New York City Serenade. I doubt I’d do them justice so here’s some links to just go listen to them:

Roaslita from 1978 (I think it’s ’78 anyway)

New York City Serenade from 2013