Archive for June, 2009

Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness

29 June 2009

20080310_bruce_springsteenI’m a Bruce Springsteen fan, or at least I have been. Hearing him in the mid-1970s was a wonder, and I’ve done my time, though not recently, queuing for ‘Bruce’ tickets. But I’d tried (on TV) to avoid his appearance this year at Glastonbury because – and this sounds like one of these old retread type of conversations about rock – watching him and his patched up band go through songs that were electrifying thirty years ago was too dismal.

And I sort of failed. On my way home today, post-Glastonbury, I stopped in a bookshop which normally plays jazz, and they were playing Born to Run, CD and track (“I’m having a Glastonbury sort of a day” said the bookseller) and while I was at the counter it hit that long extended moment in the middle of the song, that pause where he counts ‘1-2-3-4’ before the East St Band kicks in to the last section, about the broken heroes on their last chance power drive. And looking for some post tennis stuff this evening on the red button, after Murray’s five-setter against Wawrinka, I got myself into a Springsteen-at-Glastonbury loop the BBC had cunningly inserted into its interactive service, Steve Lamacq asking some questions, Bruce playing some songs, clever use of the red button and those extra channels.

But but but. I like Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Lamacq asks him about turning 60 (soon) and he gives one of  those honest but practised rock star answers (yeah, it’s no big deal, and on the day I’ll hit the bar, but on stage it’s only about – wait for it – 1-2-3-4), and then they cut back to Bruce playing Born to Run, and which producer wouldn’t make the connection between the interview answer and his most famous on-record count, and I’m thinking, I’m glad that in my work I don’t have to reprise things which I did thirty-five years ago. And much though I like Bruce, and know that he’s done some great unexpected things (like help rehabilitate Pete Seeger and his music) I’m also glad that I don’t have to make this choice for myself. It gives a sudden respect for those artists who, in that great phrase in Hay,  (or hey?) by the Irish poet Paul Muldoon,

All great artists are their own greatest threat
As when they aim an industrial laser
At themselves and cut themselves back to the root.

The picture is from the ‘Serenity Through Haiku‘ blog, which makes the same point I’ve just made, but a lot more concisely. Really: a lot more concisely.


Remember him this way

26 June 2009


The death of Michael Jackson, the same age as the label, seems emblematic in this year of the 50th anniversary of Motown – the sound of Detroit – and the bankruptcy of its biggest company, General Motors. And the comparisons – good and bad – with Elvis Presley seem inescapable: the distressed childhood; the long sad period of decline, overwhelmed by fame and celebrity; and, in between, a long moment, a sustained burst of creative energy, in which each found a new way to combine black and white music that shaped popular music for most of a generation. I’m of an age to remember the surprise, the sheer exuberance, of Off The Wall when it came out, and I’ve had my vinyl out this evening to remind myself of that moment. Don’t stop

‘Why we fight’

24 June 2009


Perhaps to demonstrate that politicians do have a use after all, one of Alan Johnson’s final decisions before being ghosted from the Department of Health to the Home Office was to instruct Islington Primary Health Trust to ‘reappraise’ its decision to sell off to developers Berthold Lubetkin’s Grade 1 listed Finsbury Health Centre.

There’s quite a lot online about the Health Centre, which was opened in 1938. Lubetkin was a Russian emigre who became one of the leading Modernist architects in the UK. His views on the function of architecture were radical; nothing was too good for ordinary people. Architecture should be an engine of social progress. This chimed with Finsbury Council, one of the most left-wing in the country, grappling with some of the greatest poverty and worst public health conditions.

But what’s interesting about the building was how quickly it became iconic – adopted by the Ministry of Information as a symbol of what Britain was fighting for in the second world war, as seen in the propaganda poster by Abram Games at the top of the post. Close study suggests that it was designed to make visual the Beveridge Report, with its attack on the ‘five giants’ of illness, ignorance, disease, squalor, and want, seen in the shadows behind the new health centre.  (The more traditional approach to visualising Britain – and certainly the one that would dominate now – is shown below.)


I was thinking about this partly because I was reading the biography of the film-maker Emeric Pressburger, whose war-time films meant endless conflict with the Ministry of Information. In early 1940, a memo was issued on the subject of the areas which were appropriate for propaganda, and there were three of these:

  1. What Britain is fighting for
  2. How Britain fights
  3. The need for sacrifices if the fight is to be won.

Without going into detail, the first heading was about ‘British Life and Character’, and ‘British Ideas and Institutions’. I’m only guessing. of course, that there was a similar note written to inform the wartime art and poster effort, although it seems likely. But with hindsight, it seems extraordinary that a radical public building by a pioneer of the modernist moverment in one of the poorest parts of the counctry should, in effect, be enshrined as an idea or institution worth fighting for within five years of opening its doors. Churchill hated the poster (not the first time he’d disliked Information Ministry propaganda) and it was printed but never displayed; but the fact that it was commissioned at all is a clue to post-war politics. Finsbury’s approach to health is seen now as a model for the national health service; Lubetkin, Games, and the Ministry of Information commissioner of the poster perhaps understood better than Churchill what they were fighting for.

Jazz drummers

23 June 2009


There’s a showbiz joke, probably put about by guitarists, about the groupie who was so dim she went home with the drummer. But the joke is about rock drummers, and as we know, jazz drummers are a different creature entirely. They can do in their sleep things which rock drummers can only dream of. This, at least, was my train of thought while I watched Dave King, the drummer with the trio The Bad Plus, as they opened for the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra at the South Bank on Saturday.

King was an astonishing presence on stage, completely at the heart of the band’s sound, sometimes driving it along with a complex mix of rhythms and sounds, sometimes amplifying the mood by adding particular percussive effects, sometimes doing all of this at once. The musicians’ position on stage underlined the importance of all three members of the trio, all at the front, rather than the rhythm section supporting the pianist from the back.

In jazz, unlike rock, drummers are honoured – as in the affectionate (and tongue in cheek) tribute by Pete Atkin and Clive James, recently reissued, “Wristwatch for a drummer“:

The Omega Incabloc Oyster Accutron 72
Without this timepiece there’d have been
No modern jazz to begin with
Bird and Diz were tricky men for a drummer to sit in with

Max Roach still wears the watch he wore when bop was new
Elvin Jones has two and Buddy Rich wears three
One on the right wrist, one on the left
And the third one around his knee.

Jazz drummers have led bands and recordings – and still do (one thinks of Seb Roachford and Polar Bear). Not surprising that drummers such as Bill Bruford and Charlie Watts returned to jazz after doing time in rock bands.

The clip below shows Dave King doing a breathtaking solo introduction to The Bad Plus’ version of Smells Like Teen Spirit, where he manages, deliberately, to be out of time with himself.

Eight horns and a rhythm section

21 June 2009

The line-up of the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra is: three saxes (two tenor, one alto), two trumpets, a trombone, a french horn, and a tuba. And bass, guitar, drums, and piano. The core of the band, of course, is the bassist Charlie Haden and Carla Bley, who plays piano and arranges. The drummer Matt Wilson and sax player Tony Malaby have been touring with this edition of the band for a few years now. But at last night’s show at London’s Royal Festival Hall, part of Meltdown, it became clear early on (as Haden was reading out their names) that most of the horns were an English ‘pick-up’ band, although John Paricelli, on guitar, is a previous Carla Bley collaborator.

Perhaps for this reason, the first couple of songs were a little stiff, as the band betrayed a few signs of nerves. But Carla Bley’s arrangements are tight, lyrical, and free-wheeling, and the musicians quickly found their feet, a reminder of what fine musicians good jazz players are. Although Haden said at the start that they’d be playing tracks from all four Music Liberation Orchestra records (dating back to the Nixon era) much of the set was from the most recent, Not in Our Name, recorded in opposition to the Iraq war, which is like an oppositional conversation with American music. it has versions of Amazing Grace, Samuel Barber’s Adagio, and part of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, as well as a rich and complex interpretation of America the Beautiful. During this the wraith-like figure of Bley flitted from piano stool into the shadows of the stage and out again, emerging to make sure the band finished the songs cleanly.

Somewhere in the middle of this Robert Wyatt rolled on the stage – to huge audience applause – to sing in Spanish a Cuban song and also his lyrics to Haden’s own Song for Che, from the first Liberation Music Orchestra record. The end of the concert got a little bit chaotic – Haden hoped that Ornette Coleman, the director of this years’s Meltdown festival would join them on stage on the final weekend of the festival.

The pair share a 50-year history but Coleman missed his call at the hotel while Haden chopped the running order around (and extended We Shall Overcome with some improbable solos) to push America The Beautiful – their version incorporates the Coleman composition Skies of America – to the end of the programme in the hope of squeezing in a surprise appearance. In the end we had to make do with an emotional hug on the stage between the two musicians as the house lights went up.

The you tube performance at the top is of the Bill Frisell composition Throughout, from the 2003 tour of Europe. Tony Malaby is the sax soloist.

I’ve posted before about the Liberation Music Orchestra and Ornette Coleman.

Mike Westbrook and a suite from an empty room

19 June 2009


Back in the days when I had less money than I do now I used to frequent the doubtless long-gone Garon Records in Cambridge – a shop which specialised in jazz deletions, or ‘cut-outs’ as they were known, from the small nick in the sleeve to show they’d been deleted.  One of my prized discoveries was a double LP by Mike Westbrook, including both his Metropolis suite and Citadel/Room 315. So stumbling across the CD of Citadel/Room 315 in a jazz shop last week was cheering,

I’ve always liked the jazz big band sound – especially when the sound has some grit between the melodies and harmonics, and Westbrook achieves this here, helped by some fine playing, notably from John Surman. The sleevenotes explain that the grim ’60s building on the cover is a block at Leeds College of Art. Westbrook had just met Kate, who worked there (they married later), and on a visit to see her he discovered a room in the college with a grand piano in it “that nobody seemed to use”. So he composed the suite there, a commission from Swedish Radio. Hence the title of the suite; and in the cover picture it may even be him you can make out at the open window. [Update: ‘Defintely Mike at the window’, says a comment, below.] Unused rooms with grand pianos in them? Very 1970s. Audit culture will, doubtless, have done for that kind of management carelessness by now.

Island in the pink

7 June 2009


One of the most amusing moments in Keep On Running, a compelling BBC documentary to mark the 50th anniversary of Island Records, was an interview with Yusuf Islam (the sometime Cat Stevens) filmed eccentrically as he was fishing unglamorously under a bridge by a canal. Stevens joined Island and changed from a pop artist to a platinum-selling singer-songwriter, and he described the label thus: “the wonderful pink wonderland of rootish British music”. The film was like a story about creative innovation.

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‘And you can’t speak of Tiananmen’

4 June 2009


The 20th anniversary reports of the massacres in Tiananmen Square – complete with a Chinese digital media blackout – reminded me of ‘Tiananmen’, the fine poem by the writer and sometime foreign correspondent James Fenton, written in haste and in anger within days of the killings.

Tiananmen by James Fenton

Tiananmen Is broad and clean

And you can’t tell

Where the dead have been

And you can’t tell

What happened then

And you can’t speak

Of Tiananmen.

You must not speak.

You must not think.

You must not dip

Your brush in ink.

You must not say

What happened then,

What happened there.

What happened there In Tiananmen.

The cruel men

Are old and deaf

Ready to kill

But short of breath

And they will die

Like other men

And they’ll lie in state In Tiananmen.

They lie in state.

They lie in style.

Another lie’s

Thrown on the pile,

Thrown on the pile

By the cruel men

To cleanse the blood From Tiananmen.

Truth is a secret.

Keep it dark.

Keep it dark.

In our heart of hearts.

Keep it dark

Till you know when

Truth may return To Tiananmen.

Tiananmen Is broad and clean

And you can’t tell

Where the dead have been

And you can’t tell

When they’ll come again.

They’ll come again

To Tiananmen.

Hong Kong, 15 June 1989 –

I hope his publishers will forgive my reproducing it here: Fenton’s collection Out of Danger, from which this comes, or his Selected Poems. are worth some of anyone’s time and money. Normally poems written at such speed are unmemorable after the moment has passed. I was struck by reports of people reading this at a commemoration this week in the UK. News that stayed news, to borrow Ezra Pound’s aphorism.