#20 -Matt Haig, Roisin and Chiara

#20 – Matt Haig, Roisin and Chiara

“The temptation to check your phone is down to uncertainty. Accept uncertainty.”

We know by now social media is an act. Sometimes a very compelling, convincing one, but still an act. Most of what we see on there (here?), what we present of ourselves, what we feel while we’re engaging with it, is an act. But it somehow lures your brain into thinking it is real, to the point that if you become absorbed in it or long enough you forget whether it is real or fake.

Which is why, in partial response to reading the brilliant ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’, by Matt Haig, I will be taking further steps to try to disconnect from social media, using it for the two main purposes of publishing and shipping this blog to as wide an audience as possible, and spreading artistic works of others I admire. Like Roisin and Chiara.

Haig’s guide to living a less anxious, more aware, more accepting life, is presented in a suitably random format, with accessible, readable sections packaged in a way that invites you to dip back in and out, as we navigate through the quagmire of technologically-wired, physically disconnected modern life. Everybody should read this book, at least twice.

It’s both obvious and intelligent, basic yet revelatory. The encouragement and direction to accept who we are, to be content that we are all enough as we are, and that to want is to lack, is enlightening and warming; but at the same time is I feel, an indictment of that which society has become. There isn’t a word that Haig delivers that I disagreed with, but equally felt some sorrow that it had taken me 18 years of adult life and varying extremes of joy and deep despair to acknowledge what is, when laid out here, clear as daylight. 

I carried Haig’s book with me as I traipsed around the wonderful Edinburgh Fringe festival, alone, drifting from act to act taking brief time out in between to jot down notes from what I’ve just watched to help me stay more in the present. No Facebook updates, tweets or Insta-posts. And the festival could not have been more enjoyable.

I’d stumbled upon Roisin and Chiara at Boteco bar and really didn’t know what I would be seeing. And having thought about it a fair bit since, I’m still not certain I know what I saw! I experienced chaos and uncertainty with a modicum of discomfort, layered on top of genuinely original performing art and almost non-stop laughter.

The mystery starts from the off. If you go to high five someone as you walk in a room, as seemed the obvious thing for me to do in this moment, and rather than requite, your host grabs your hand, sniffs the back of it then shoves a strange sweet in your mouth, your senses are immediately tuned up to the height they need to be to get optimal enjoyment out of an act like this.

The duo are outstanding performers making every character in their repertoire believable and memorable. Particularly hilarious was the Sloane/most-of-south-east-England-youth send up that I “literally, like totally, hashtag-luh-uuuhh-ved.”

They combine music and visuals superbly to deliver a show with so much life and energy you were out of breath by the end. The “uptight, robust Mediterranean” being a perfect foil for the “loose and easy” Irish-catholic girl, synchronising their sounds and voices at times like they were one. Their accents were so varied and flawless I couldn’t actually tell you what their genuine talking accents are. The madness was finished off, of course, with a truly inspirational Sting in the tail.

Was it real, was it fake? I may have left not knowing quite what it is I’d experienced after watching this funny and flirtatious double act, but for those 60 minutes, I was most definitely connected to actual humans delivering great creative art, rather than some algorithm and data feed filling me with anxiety.

An act it was, but this is the kind of act, we should see more of; and spend less of our lives on the virtual, online, marketed nervousness that Haig so powerfully exposes in his essential publication.

Get to the Fringe. Take Matt Haig with you. And go and see Rosin and Chiara’s spectacular Back to Back show.

 

#19 – Tom Jones – Praise and Blame, 2010

“Ain’t no grave, gonna hold my body down,”

“when I hear that trumpet sounds, I’m gonna get up out of this ground”.

One of the main reasons I don’t post more blogs, or write more, or play music as much I’d like to, or dedicate enough of my energy as I’d like to for family & friends, is time. Time to think, time to plan, time to think about doing, think about the reasons for not doing, time to do, time to worry about what I did, and on and on and on. More time thinking about things than JFDI.

What if I had to write a blog in 45 minutes? No research, no planning, no editing. Starting….now.

You’d get this:

I don’t believe in God. But I do believe in a lot of what Christian traditions can teach us. The careful study of one piece of important work written up, rather than fleeting attention to hundreds, for example. Being kind to one another, no matter what. Forgiveness. Art. But mostly though, the music. Gospel music.

My choice for this week’s Records & Writing speed blog – in honour of Geraint Thomas’ historic win in the Tour de France this weekend: Tom Jones’ Praise and Blame, a superb blusey-rocky, raw and minimal gospel album. Except there’s no gospel choir (bar a few backing singerson the odd track). Just some pared back rhythm, crunchy guitar riffs and Tom. Oh Tom.

Most blues or rock songs can be reproduced, covered, say, by other artists, with a modicum of talent, and many without. Even some of Tom’s songs. Gospel music is unlikely to sound anything like gospel music, or even a decent song, without a gospel choir.

This album doesn’t have many instruments, complex beats or layered production. It is basic. It is pure. It is everything you want music to do for you when you are feeling miserable as sin, or content as a saint. But it could never be replicated, by anyone, for one simple reason, and that is Tom’s voice.

For all his glorious years selling records and thrilling fans, in my humble, totally biased opinion his voice is most suited to the blues, coupled with these deep, soulful gospel tones delivered here to perfection.

What Good Am I’ builds with sorrow at the start of the album, only to be thrown into reverse by the scorching ‘Lord Help’. ‘Burning Hell’ is the highlight striking fear into the hearts of those of us who are pretty convinced that if we did believe in such a thing, we would almost certainly end up in said fiery abyss even if we claimed it was to sell our soul to the devil to play the blues better. The perkier ‘Didn’t It Rain’ makes you want to dance, ‘Ain’t No Grave’ makes you feel like there is a ‘band of angels coming after me’ with this message of hope.

Unlike James Brown or John Mayall, I’m not sure if Sir Tom has ever been referred to as the Godfather of anything. It’s probably for the best. On this album, he sounds like the Creator Himself, casting down words of guidance to those listening, and damning anyone foolish enough not to be. The penultimate ‘Run On’ reminds you of the roots of rock & roll and the debt that blues music owes to this most wonderful kind of religious gift to the world.

There will never be another singer like Tom Jones. Ever. There will probably never be another Welsh winner of the Tour in my lifetime. Both legends in their own right. Both ‘true Welsh’, true to Wales, always. Tom, Geraint, thank you. It’s almost enough to make you believe…

(blog written in 25 minutes, 10 minutes to upload to Word Press, 5 minutes to listen to the Ethan Johns Wood Room version of Burning Hell at the end of the album)

#18 – Led Zeppelin II

“Well it’s been ten years or maybe more, since I first set eyes on you”

When life gives you lemons….listen to The Lemon Song. Or better still, The Lemon Song and all those songs around it on Led Zeppelin II.

I’ve had one of those shit weeks. We’ve all been there. A really, really shit week. So shit, that had I raced in front of him and pipped Renton to the cubicle of Trainspotting’s famous Scottish toilet, dived in face first and swam down there for a week without respite, I would have faced less shit than has come my way this week. The shit in that toilet would have seemed like a mere ghost-fart in comparison. Maybe.

When you have weeks like that, it’s easy to break. To collapse, combust, or simply dissolve. I should know, I’ve done it enough times. But the shitness of this week wasn’t all about me, so I needed some way to stop myself from folding and throwing in the towel. Contrary to the famous Dale Carnegie mantra, in these situations I don’t necessarily believe you need to make the best of what you’ve been given and make lemonade. You need to remind yourself of all the good things in life. You need to re-discover your heart and your soul. So when life gives you lemons – and believe me, it will – listen to rock & roll. Which really means listen to the blues. Because you’ll want to cry. And rock. Then laugh, and cry. And the thing that will get you through your shittest week is the rockin’. And laughing.

The Lemon Song on Led Zeppelin II is 6 glorious minutes of all of this: great, sad blues melded with some epic, upbeat rock & roll, and is all a bit of a laugh, in the best possible way. It even has some call-and-return back and forth between Page’s guitar and Plant’s vocal, something I can’t recall happening too much on their studio albums. And The Lemon comes 2 songs after Whole Lotta Love, and 2 songs before Heartbreaker. Heartbreaker, probably the most exciting rock-riff/lyric-accompaniment ever produced. Heartbreaker, blasting through my Marshall cans while limping through Paddington station on my way to off-load my shitty week to the only people who can really console/tolerate you when you have such a shit week, is the only song on earth that makes it sound cool to have had your heart broken. “The best years of my life gone by, here I am alone and……” head-banging ‘cos I’m listening to Heartbreaker.

After/if you get through Heartbreaker (I usually find I have to listen to it at least 3 times before I move on), sandwiching the optimism of Ramble On are the riffs of Living Loving Maid and Moby Dick. The artistry of these fellas has possibly never been matched. It’s only right that Led Zep II, one of the all-time great albums/blues/blues-rock/rock/rock & roll albums, finishes with Bring it On Home, where the melancholic tones of voice, bass and harmonica book-end more massive riffing from Page and the rest of the band at their most powerful, awesome best.

There’ll be more shitness to come. A whole heap of dark, inconsistent, stinking shit, and badness and hardship, for all of us, I’m sure. But through all of that, grab a friend. Grab three. I did. Tell those who need you that you’re there, even if they don’t want you or can’t face you. Go native, back to your roots, to what matters. Family, friends. Tears, laughter. Music, art. Blues, rock & roll. Write a riff, write a blog, sing a song, reel in, rock out, but whatever you do, make sure at the end of it you can laugh.

Because guess what, it’s Monday again. The week is over. And I’m still here, listening to The Lemon Song. I’m rockin’ and laughing. So I win.

#17 – Foo Fighters, live @ London Stadium 2018

“What if I say I’m not like the others, what if I say I’m not just another

One of your plays, you’re the Pretender. What if I say I’ll never surrender”

I made a mistake. A grave and, with hindsight, troubling error of judgement. Maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly, maybe I acted hastily. It played on my mind for some time. I sought assurances from others. Yet corroboration was either not convincing or came too late and I went ahead and did it – the mistake was there, for hundreds of people to see in an instant, at the touch of a screen: I tweeted that the Foo Fighters were “possibly the greatest band of my generation.”

Saturday night they played to a sold-out 80,000 crowd at the London Olympic Stadium. And I was there. I’d never seen them before, and boy, was I excited. But it soon became quite clear how misjudged my tweet was. From the moment Dave Grohl shouts “are you fucking ready?” before belting ‘All My Life’ as the opener (the opener?!! Jeeez!) to the closing trio of ‘Best of You’, ‘Times Like These’ and ‘Everlong’ (those 4-songs right there would be worth the entry fee alone), with a sprinkling of Lennon and Mercury covers for a laugh, you know you are in the presence of rock & roll legends. Not just that, but rock & roll legends who are being really, really good at being rock & roll legends.

49-year old Grohl doesn’t pretend to be anything he’s not. He can do that, though, and still keep his place among rock’s maestros because he is so many things in so many ways. Goes without saying he’s the quintessential rock frontman. A prolific songwriter. A guy you want to hang out with, and would probably find it hard to begrudge your missus sleeping with. But above all that, first and foremost, and what makes this band stand out from any other like them today, is the exceptional musicianship. I’ve always thought this, but seeing it live is something quite different. To anyone who would listen, and many who wouldn’t, I ran out of superlatives in my efforts to express how much I enjoyed the gig and how star-struck I was just from being in the same stadium as Grohl & co.

I’ve seen some superb acts live that, even if I love them, at times can overplay and you’re left thinking the set would have benefited from being curtailed slightly. Not so with the Foos. The two and a half hour set flew by, and even with that some notable tracks were omitted. It makes you remember, or realise if you didn’t realise before, how much high quality music this outstanding band have produced over the past 24 years.

Yep, the tweet was a big mistake. It was obvious 3 or 4 songs in. It was the adverb that did it. Possibly?? Worse than unnecessary, it was plain wrong. ‘Possibly’ made the statement inaccurate. There was no ‘possibly’ about it. ‘Possibly’ leaves doubt, room for an alternative. ‘Possibly’ is what you say to someone who asks if you’re free to meet up this weekend but you’re waiting for a better offer. On this performance, on the recalling of their back catalogue and their continued ability to produce albums like Concrete & Gold, still, with monster tracks like ‘Make it Right’ and ‘The Sky is the Neighbourhood’, it was beyond doubt: The Foo Fighters are quite simply the greatest band of my generation. Formed after I arrived on this earth, will be listened to after I depart…

A word on Taylor Hawkins. Drumming for the Foos must be a daunting prospect, like the hand surgeon operating on a pro-violinist maybe, or even the ENT surgeon removing the inevitable polyps from Dave Grohl’s vocal chords. You can’t f*ck it up. Not only do you know about Grohl’s previous life and abilities but you know everyone else knows about it and that they know that you know. But Hawkins was nothing short of immense. Driving the Foos’ unrelenting power, making the audience feel every pulse. The physicality of his performance, the strength and stamina needed to drum solidly like he does for two and a half hours, was just awesome. Part way through they even elevated his drum kit in admiration. Then after delivering the best drum solo since John Bohnam smashed out Moby Dick, the band did in fact go off for Grohl to start an emotional solo of My Hero, presumably just to give Hawkins a brief rest; only when most of the audience must surely have had tears rolling down their chests from Grohl’s vocal did the band come back on and delight us all once again.

#16 – Lincoln in the Bardo

Reading Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, brought to mind an elective general anaesthetic, of which I’ve had several. Your approach and your mindset at the time of reading it, may, however, determine whether this feels like receiving, or administering the mind and body-disabling drugs. For me, it felt like going through the whole procedure again, from rolling into the anaesthetic room to the waking up in the recovery area with somebody of smugly superior knowledge telling you why what you’ve just put yourself through was essentially a good thing.  

I’d read all over the place that it was a challenging read. It’s not the subject matter I found difficult – in fact it was part of the reason I liked the sound of it. Simply put, it’s about Abe Lincoln mourning the death of his son, who is trapped in ‘the Bardo’  – the state between death and rebirth. Lincoln visits his son’s crypt and is observed by a group of spirits who provide much of the commentary of the novel.  

It’s written in an exciting, innovative new format, according to some critics, with the name of the person/spirit who just spoke underneath the section of dialogue.  

Osian Powell 

There is so much of it that it becomes very difficult, or annoying, or boring to follow it. As an anonymous critic also said to me: 

By about half way, I couldn’t be bothered to read the name of who just spoke so I just read straight through. 

Anonymous critic  

I’m sure some revelled in the novelty of what is simply a different way of representing speech. 

Some who revelled in the novelty 

You get the picture. All I thought was that it showed why, over hundreds of years of writing, a few similar ways of presenting speech or dialogue by and large have been maintained and trusted. They work. 

I may of course be showing my limitations as a reader (and tendency to drink too-strong wine while I read chapters of tricky books and therefore sometimes lose the plot, literally. Although in hindsight I think I was drinking whilst reading this in an effort to make it more interesting.)  For too much of the book I was wondering what relevance the commentary/dialogue had to the story, how was it moving the narrative forward? By about page 75 I seem to recall I was basically willing it to end.   

What’s this got to do with anaesthetics?  

An anaesthetist will approach the task with seriousness, but in a calm, relaxed manner. This is probably the best way to think about Lincoln. They’ll be focussed throughout. It will be routine for them, require their attention, with little room for error (and no wine). There are parts of the process when anaesthetists can be less attentive, reliant on their automated machines to highlight any anomalies, but will be alert the whole time; interested. This is needed throughout this book. It’s different, needs alertness and attention as well as your automated instincts for good, intricate writing.  

If you’re a patient, however, it’s a different story. Arriving at hospital for planned surgery is an exciting prospect. You’re going to be ‘mended’. You generally think about it for a while, weighing up the evidence, people’s opinions, pros and cons. I’d done some of this before deciding to read this Man Booker Prize winning, “innovative” novel which is, according to The Guardian, “head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction”. As I started, I was still excited. It started confidently, like the assuring conversation between patient, surgeon and anaesthetist.

Unfortunately, after the initial excitement and intrigue, for large parts of the book, (possibly those read with the Viognier), I got lost. Bored. In parts, with the ghosts of the Bardo chattering away, it was like I was unconsciously floating through time with only the skill and consciousness of those (anaesthetists) who had clearly enjoyed and recommended the book being enough to keep me alive and reading it. They must be on to something, right? There must be something I’m missing? I shouldn’t be thinking that reading this book is a complete waste of some of the precious 44 million minutes I have on this earth, before I myself end up in the Bardo! In fact, the only difference I could ascertain between reading this and having a general anaesthetic is that at least at the end of an anaesthetic your life (hopefully) has been improved in some measurable way. This novel added little to my existence. And I write that as someone who truly loves great fiction and new innovative ways of treating subject matters, including the between-life-and-afterlife.   

Great literature should do many things. It should make us challenge assumptions, look at the world differently. Teach us, help us think about things from different perspectives. Appreciate skill and talent, yes, but also have a purpose. And for me, I want to enjoy a book as well, there has to be some level of entertainment, especially as life gets more serious as you get older. Most anaesthetists enjoy the whole event. If you enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo then I congratulate your skill and admire your ability to focus precisely on that which appears to be so imprecise.  

The book scores 3.4 stars out of 5 on Amazon’s reviews with 169 reviewers. This however, is made up of mostly 5, or 1 star ratings. I wouldn’t recommend this book based purely on my opinion. But if you do tackle it, approach it like you’re giving someone an anaesthetic, and you might enjoy it.  

#15 – Jimi Hendrix, Red House

#15 – Jimi Hendrix, Red House

jimi2

When did you last get angry? Like, raging. Breath held, sucking your sternum into your lungs until your collarbones snap. Just me? I doubt it. Think back and ask yourself, did it help? Did it achieve anything? Did it actually help the situation in any way whatsoever? Did it make you feel better? I doubt that, too.

We get angry at the smallest of things. Crazy, really. The damp cloth left unsqueezed in the cloudy, day-old dishwater in the sink. Divorces have been filed for less. The empty butter tub that’s been put back in the fridge, discovered only as your toast pops in the morning, ruining breakfast ahead of that big meeting. The amateur who waits until they get to the ticket barrier before hunting through half their belongings in their bag to only find last week’s stubs, who turns around and walks back through the queue against the flow. Against. The flow! 

Anger is everywhere, and it feels justified – politicians who are fools; professionals who are incompetent; Joe Wicks. Or worse, Olly Murs. Ok, these last two aren’t so small. But in most situations, anger doesn’t really get you anywhere. I’m not for a minute advocating a hug for dear old Joe or Olly, but I would say that as a general approach to living a happier life, speaking from personal experience as most could, there are better choices than anger almost all of the time.

Sure, Mike Phillips, the legendary Welsh No. 9 may have built his reputation on it, but it didn’t help him at 3am in the golden-arched burger establishment. Even Anthony ‘Angry Chef’ Warner, whose acerbic yet hilarious invective of pretty much every food fad & myth popularised over the past 20 years is borne of a desire to help people and stop them making bad decisions.

Imagine you could pause, just at the point the anger is about to boil over. You press hold on your surroundings, and everything…stops.

What would you do? Would you clench your teeth & fists tighter, slam the button and let rip? Or could you do something amazing?

You can tell from the intro of ‘Red House‘ that Hendrix knows what’s coming. He’s weeping, the writing’s on the wall. The senses are on high alert. His voice in the first verse tells you where it’s heading. We begin to feel his pain, then we realise. ‘Wait a minute, something’s wrong, the key won’t unlock this door‘. The big bends on the guitar fills contorting his heart as much as his torso. ‘My baby don’t live here no more.’jimi3

Oh Jimi. ‘She didn’t tell me nothin’ about it. But that’s alright I still got my guitar, look out baby.‘ And at that point, at 2 minutes 11 seconds  into the track, there is nothing but anger. Pure white rage flowing from this desperate agony.  What do you do?

Do you explode? Do you scream? All this hate & fury? At this point in history, faced with one of the oldest stories ever told, that’s happened for centuries gone by and will happen for millennia to come, a woman leaving a man, the story that has been the very essence of blues music since before Ms Johnson gave birth to young Robert in Hazlehurst, Mississippi back in 1911, what  would you do? Hendrix? Jimi Hendrix pauses.

What follows, is one of the most electrifying blues guitar solos ever to have been played, combining to make this one of the greatest blues songs ever to have been recorded. Its understated complexity & technicality. Its raw power. Expressing exactly what you or I would felt had we got home and our beloved had walked out on us. As storming a run through those 12 simple bars as could ever have been felt at the time or has ever been felt since. Genius is used to describe Hendrix for many reasons, but for me the simplicity yet emotional explosion of his talent has never been more evident than here. It is the perfect rendition of the most treasured of combinations – Hendrix, playing nothin’ but the blues.

And finally, like any man who’s been in this position can relate to, and as the blues instructs that it must, humour and lust come back to the fore. As the final verse climaxes, we know, with delight, that Jimi will be ok. ‘If my baby won’t love me no more, I know her sister will.’

Next time you feel the red mist rising, pause and think of ‘Red House’ instead. See if you can direct that emotion to something more constructive. Get creative. Get humourous, get some good out of it. Do something wonderful, something beautiful.  Make music, make love. Just try not to get angry.*

* Some may argue that Hendrix adopted a very different outlook when singing ‘Hey Joe’, encouraging cold-blooded murder as a response to a similar scenario. To those, I would remind them that in that he was singing about Joe, whoever that mad bastard was. Red House is about Jimi and what Jimi did.  

 

#14 – Hackney Colliery Band – Sharpener

#14 – Hackney Colliery Band – Sharpener  

The artists of Brick Lane. The curry houses, the creatives. Dives & designers; piss artists, musicians, usually the same. The painters & graffiti mob. You can smell the anticipation. A mixture of fresh roast Exmouth and the warm fuzz of the frying spices from Bangladesh and India. On a cold day in January it’s enough to light up your sinuses and put a smile on your heart.  

The critics condemn the closure of this or that local. The locals decry the mass gentrification and wave of hipsters taking over their home, understandably. But it’s still an inviting place for a midday stroll at the weekend.   

Old buildings make it clear you’re still in the heart of East London. The mix of accents, North American tourists to friendly local lilts of Asia, Europe and Landan, make it clear you’re still in the heart of East London, comfortingly so.  

lady
The mighty Ladyfist

On to the music. I once saw Ladyfist at Vibe Bar before they both shut down, possibly due to artistic differences. Both were big cultural losses, but warm lager aside, it was an excellent gig.  

At midday the best you can hope for are the pulsing beats blaring from the various market record stalls, stores or kids with those portable speakers. I had my own Marshall speakers wrapped tightly round my head and had the Hackney Colliery Band tracking my every step back to the underground.  

I was bought their ‘Sharpener’ album as a gift by a very special person. And on coloured vinyl! I’d never heard of them before, which is shameful since I work in Hackney. Though not in a colliery thankfully. If only colliers had music like this to listen to. It’s an electrifying mix of big brass, beats and bass, playing like they want everyone to jump up and dance. Tuneful and melodic, the tracks range from happy big band party to sinister soundtracks, the opener, ‘Jump Then Run‘ being a fine example of both.   

 hack2.jpeg

The brass dominates the record but would be nothing without the thundering drums. If this were a soccer team the trumpets & trombones would be the world class strikers getting all the glory, but the drums would be the D keeping the clean sheet to win the titles. Listen to ‘When You Know‘ and you’ll know what I’m talking about.  

It’s a fine album from a fine band bringing big horns together with bigger beats. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and purists may bemoan this shift or that fusion. But they’re branching out and reaching out, giving old music to new generations. Similar to how Ladyfist did cutting their teeth before embarking on the big time.  It brilliantly melds trends with tradition and is sometimes all you need to bring about a smile on a cold winter’s day. Just like Brick Lane.  

 

#13 – Black Betty – Lead Belly / Ram Jam 

#13 – Black Betty – Lead Belly/Ram Jam 

“She really get me high, you know that’s no lie.” 

Manners can be interpreted differently. One tribe’s rude is another mob’s greeting. We recognise them as generally a good thing to have or exhibit, but often get it wrong. Done badly, we cringe or take offence. Done well, we’re put at ease, we smile and are made to feel slightly more human.   

If you believe the internet, the ‘Black Betty’ of this legendary folk song’s title could refer to at least any of the following: a woman, a weapon; a whip; a drink; a drunk; a vessel for a drink; a means of transport. The Wikipedia entry is worth a visit for the claimed stories behind some of these. But from the exciting (The Lost Fingers) to the completely bizarre versions (Tom Jones, or ‘TJ’ as he is on here), and everything in between (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Meatloaf, Spiderbait, and so on), you can see it probably meant something different to each artist. And, like manners, all are generally well-intended but often don’t hit the mark, and likely to induce the odd cringe and grudge.  

Whatever your interpretation – maybe an entry in Benjamin Franklin’s 1736 ‘Drinker’s Dictionary’, or a prison wagon – you only really need to listen to two versions: Lead Belly’s early recording and of course, Ram Jam’s seminal cover. Raw power linking the two, coming essentially from the singer’s comfort to just riff with a beat.  

She’s From Birmingham

Why does something so simple make you feel more human? If you cross paths with a familiar face today and they’re rude to you, you’ll begrudge them for the rest of the day. If they have nothing materially important to say, but say it in the most endearing, fun way possible, you’ll take that with you always, that feeling of instant warmth and hope. These two versions – one will be familiar, the other maybe not – are everything you could want from an old drinker’s tale and a juiced-up rock cover.   

They also, brilliantly, meant that most covers after these, sound like they’re either trying to out-rock Ram Jam or over-simplify Lead Belly, both of which are just, if not rude, impolite to say the least, and don’t work. Admittedly, Ram Jam’s track runs out of steam a bit but the near-pointless instrumental bridge before the finale can be excused. It serves simply to tee us up for another cracking, rocking verse to sign off with. Birmingham, Alabama has never been pronounced with more verve.   jeffrey

I’d be surprised if anyone didn’t have a smile on their face and a jig in their hips after just 90 seconds of listening to Ram Jam’s classic cover, and may even want to get Black Betty’d as a result.    

Cover, imitate what you want. Interpret things however you please. But remember, mind your manners.  

What I’m reading:   

Jeffrey Eugenides, Fresh Complaint – a collection of short stories. Occasionally you come across prose so beautifully crafted it makes you wish you’d known about the author 10 years ago. Stories of characters we could easily have known, lives we could easily have lived, or wish we’d lived (or wished we hadn’t). ‘Baster’, the highlight for me, exemplifying Eugenides’ skill at handling dark and complex issues with humour and lightness of touch. Highly recommended. 

#12 Daft Punk – Homework

#12 Daft Punk  Homework 

File 05-01-2018, 22 02 51

One of my new year’s resolutions was to see things more, look at things differently: food; art; relationships; surroundings. Be aware. Breathe more. Be mindful.   

In all my years at all the Welsh train stations, I hadn’t noticed this before. I mean, obviously times, destinations, platforms and so on are always announced in Welsh and English. This pleases me but must mildly irritate hurried monolinguists trying to hear which platform the delayed 15:26 back to Llundain is going from.  

What I hadn’t noticed until last week, is that even if it’s the same word, the English announcements actually pronounce the Welsh station name in English. Even if it’s the same word! This makes no sense. Especially as the Welsh announcement goes just before it; there’s no excuse that the recorded announcer couldn’t pronounce it or didn’t know how to. It’s literally just been said. Copy it.

  ticketI’m not talking about Brecon/Aberhonddu or Bridgend/Pen-y-bont. That’s clear – one is in Welsh, the other in English. I’m talking about places that don’t have a translation – the Caernarfons, Llanellis. Llanelli FFS! Do they really think non-Welsh-speakers won’t know where or what Llanelli is, but will know exactly when to get off when the Welsh announcer, doing her best Nigella Lawson impression calls “all passengers for Claneckli”? This didn’t really annoy, more baffle me. When departing Berlin, I need to know where Schönefeld is, not Scone-feld. In Paris I want the Moulin Rouge, not the Mole-Inn Rogue, interesting as that may be.  

Thankfully nothing is lost in translation when it comes to Daft Punk’s incredible 1997 debut studio album, Homework. You may not speak ‘dance’ or know how to translate majestic techno beats, but it doesn’t matter. This is the ultimate cross-over, novice to maestro, veteran-introducing behemoth of an electronic dance album.   

 

 

 

You’ll know Around the World. Melodious and poppy, by now classic Daft Punk. Da Funk is a powerhouse that makes you want to ram your head inside the speaker for when the bass hits. The beats and genre-defining sounds are relentless – hi-hats on Phoenix making the most interesting 90-second drum intro you’ll need to hear.  

Rollin’ & Scratchin is a 7½ minute soundtrack to an epic game of giant Jenga, nerves falling like pine needles from a Christmas tree by the end. It comes as a mild relief in some ways that the back end of the album is marginally weaker in my view and doesn’t quite sustain the emotion of the charged first half, Burnin‘ being the intense exception.  

The entire feast is enticing and compelling. For a dance album that screams loops, samples and repetition there’s something new every time, on almost every track. I’ve listened to it straight through 4 times in the past few weeks including once in my living room, twice on a train, once in Llanelli.  

It made me think again about travel, and about music. Not much does that these days and this is 20 years old. It made me think about life, the mark of a great work of art. More than anything else, this album makes you feel like fun.   

It made me re-think all my new year’s resolutions. They could be simplified. They should be everyone’s.    

2018: Be daft. Be more punk. Listen to Homework.  

 

#11 East of Eden – John Steinbeck

Stein

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

I’m back. The real slim shady. Please stand up. Maybe not… 

I stopped blogging for about 6 months. I didn’t even reach my self-imposed, measly aim of 12 blog posts first time round. Why? Nobody read it. Or very few people read it. Which I took to mean that nobody liked it. Which surely meant it wasn’t any good. Shell dented, pride wounded, I withdrew. If nobody read my blog what was the point? Who was interested in what a 30 year-old album made a 35 year-old child feel like on a Sunday morning crying into his coffee, wishing he’d made less of his weekend and more of his ambitions of his artistic life? But that would be an excuse.

We can all suffer from hubris. It has advantages, but it can hold you back. I mean, seriously, what did I expect? To pour my heart out a few times over something that excited me but most people couldn’t give two damns about, and overnight turn into Deliciously f*cking Ella getting rich off 3 million hits?

Ella
The dream

Come on. Anyone who has done this, or tried this, or succeeded or failed at this will tell you getting any sort of interest in a brand new blog, even something as heart-racingly pant-soiling as “clean eating”, takes around 2 years. And I’ve just wasted 6 months feeling sorry for myself. Or being lazy. Or both.

Clacking away

In those 6 months I came to realise a wonderful thing. What does it matter? What does it matter if nobody reads this? What difference will it make to anything or anyone on earth if this gets read or not? I realised, too late, in my lonely, teary state that I’m not doing this for you. I’m not doing it for any money. I’m not even doing it as a wind-up or to annoy The Boss by clacking away at the keys while she’s trying to concentrate on her MiC catch-up, as amusing as that is. I’m doing it for myself.

So here I am, after a long holiday, writing something that no one will read and even fewer people will care about. Because it makes me look at things differently. It makes me notice, in a time when so little of value truly gets noticed. Because it connects me in a completely different way to some of the things I love. Records and writing.

I’m not normally one for biblical anything let alone unexpected parallels, so it may seem peculiar that I’ve chosen East of Eden to kick-start the second coming of the blog. But I only came to the book recently, and it took me on a journey. From the despair and anguish to wild ambition and hope. In a way, some would argue, that only religion, or passion, can. And sometimes that’s all we need. 

Steinbeck’s soft, tender tone belies the brutality of what’s at hand. Murder, betrayal, prostitution, depravity, family, place and love. And I was hooked throughout all 601 pages. 

His descriptions of the valley & the farms. The smells and sights of this stunning backdrop set you up for your ride and give you comfort, when perhaps you should be on your guard. 

Wonderful, exceptional characters. To despise, to love. Cathy and Caleb, Sam and Lee. Characters you wish would make different decisions. Some you wished weren’t quite as real or familiar as they seem, some you wished could be real.

Timshel 

In addition to all these contradictory emotions, it provides a poignant, simple philosophy that we could all do well to recall from time to time. Lee’s version of ‘Timshel’ – thou mayest. Not, ‘you must’, or ‘you shall’, but ‘you may’. And, therefore, you may not. It’s in your hands. Think about this next time you’re unsure of which decision to take.

And so back to the blog. You can take it or leave it. It really doesn’t matter. I’ll no longer agonise over every pointless word or worry that sentences don’t make sense, as I’m sure many won’t. I won’t pore over every fact or reference or worry that I’m making a fool of myself.

I got it wrong. The response to low readership should not be to withdraw, to write less, but to double down. Try harder, get better. So my aim now is simply to produce. To make something. To write.

So read it. Share it. ‘Like’ it. Laugh at it. Or don’t. Timshel.