Archive for July, 2009

Highway 61: Dylan’s blues record

30 July 2009

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You never quite know what you’re going to get with the American music writer Greil Marcus, although I’m a fan: Mystery Train re-shaped the way I thought about American music when I was younger, and Lipstick Traces is a work of genius,  one of the great books of the 20th century. Some of the rest is more patchy, although in all of his writing there are virtuoso passages of improvisation which are worth the cover price.

So it proves with Like A Rolling Stone, which uses the song as a way into the moment when Dylan re-invented himself as a performer, and also, Marcus suggests, when American culture was also on the turn. For me the improvisation is a section – only a few pages – which links the song and the record, Highway 61 Revisited, to the American blues tradition. Other writers (such as Michael Gray) have demonstrated Dylan’s deep knowledge of country blues, and when I went back to listen to the record I realised, I think for the first time, that the very obvious blues-inflected songs on there (Tombstone Blues, It Takes A Lot To Laugh, for example), aren’t easy fillers but are about setting the tone. The guitarist Martin Simpson has made this connection brilliantly in his ‘medley’ which links the country blues “Highway 61” and “Highway 61 Revisited“, and which is worth nine minutes of anyone’s time over on You Tube. And of course Greil Marcus takes us on a lively detour along this iconic American road, the ‘Blues Highway‘.

Some aspects of the “Rolling Stone” session are worn smooth with repetition. Al Kooper sometimes resists questions about how at 21 he inveigled himself into playing keyboards on it (well, when the facts become legend…). It does seem clear from Marcus’ appendix that there was really only one good version in the fifteen or so takes, and on another day the song could easily have become one of those well-bootlegged ‘interesting failures’ of Dylan’s career.

There are other curiosities too. Tom Wilson, the producer, was fired by CBS after the Rolling Stone session for reasons which remain unclear, but may have been to do with colour, and his place taken for the rest of the recording by Bob Johnston. Johnston seems to had a fair deal of propriety, certainly by the standards of the music industry; when the first sleeves came back Wilson was not credited as the producer on Like A Rolling Stone, and Johnston sent the sleeves back so this could be corrected (his name is still there on the latest CDs). Is the sound different on the other  songs? Marcus thinks so – Johnston pursued a more ‘ensemble’ sound, whereas Wilson looked for clarity between the instruments, and going back to the record afresh it is possible to imagine that Johnston made the tonne of the record ‘dirtier’ – in fact, more bluesy.

Tom Simpson, ‘cycling’s Icarus’

26 July 2009

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The Tour de France climbed Mont Ventoux yesterday, and the British riders found their way to pay their respects to Tom Simpson, the British cyclist who died on the climb in 1967, a mile short of the summit, suffering from a mixture of heat exhaustion, dehydration, stomach problems (he’d been ill for several days), amphetamines and alcohol. The best account of that fateful day is in William Fotheringham’s biography Put Me Back On The Bike, which makes it clear there were other causes as well; professional insecurity and Simpson’s burning desire, which quite often pushed him beyond his physical limits.

Simpson was the first British cyclist to make a real impact on professional cycling, and is probably still Britain’s most successful racer, winning among quite a lot of others the World Championships, Paris-Nice, and classic one-day races such as the Milan-San Remo (not won by another UK rider until Cavendish’s win earlier this year). The first, too, to wear the leader’s yellow jersey in the Tour, with a best finish in sixth place.

Yesterday David Millar threw an inscribed Garmin team cap to the foot of the memorial, while Charly Wegelius added a water bottle. Mark Cavendish removed his helmet. Bradley Wiggins, who had gone past at the business end of the stage about half an hour before, Twittered afterwards that he’d had a photo of Simpson taped to his bike.

Shed a tear today for Tom. I had a little extra strength today from somewhere. Had a photo of the man on my top tube.

And I hadn’t realised until yesterday that Simpson’s daughter, Joanne, had shared the same house as Bradley Wiggins’ dad, Gary, when Gary Wiggins was competing professionally in Belgium.

The most exact epitaph for Simpson came earlier this year from David Millar, who’s had his own problems with drugs. In his introduction to Simpson’s recently re-published autobiography, Cycling is my Life, he described the memorial as a poignant reminder of “how close he got and how far he fell – Tommy Simpson, cycling’s very own Icarus.”

Managing genius

25 July 2009

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One of the stars, for me, of Jonathan Wilson’s geeky but entertaining global history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, is Bela Guttman. The career of the Hungarian manager spanned both sides of the war, and he escaped the Holocaust by being interned in Switzerland. He’s best known for his Benfica side of the early 1960s, which beat Barcelona and Real Madrid in successive years to win the European Cup. Wilson describes him this way:

He represented the final flowering of the great era of central European football; he was the last of the coffee-house coaches, perhaps even the last defender of the game’s innocence.

“I never minded if the opposition scored” he said, “because I always thought we could score another”. When Benfica beat Real Madrid 5-3 in the European Cup Final in 1962, with two second-half goals from the young Eusebio, they came back from 2-0 and 3-2 down. He was also a man who had a Clough-like hostility to interference.

Three stories from the book from a career which involved managing dozens of teams on three continents.

  • At Ciocanul in Romania, a director tried to interfere his team selection.  “OK, you run the club, you seem to have the basics”, Guttman told him, and promptly left.
  • Managing Kispest in Hungary, he decided to take off a full-back who was having a poor game, thinking (in the days before substitutes) that the team would play better with ten men.  His captain, Puskas, told the player to stay on. Guttman sat out the game in the stands, reading a paper, and didn’t return to the club again.
  • At AC Milan he was sacked after taking the club to the top of the league. He told a news conference, “I have been sacked even though I am neither a criminal or a homosexual”. Thereafter he insisted on a clause in his contract which said he could not be sacked when the team topped the table.

19-PedrotoGutmanIn Portugal he won the league with Porto, and was hired by Benfica, with whom he won the league in 1960 and 1961. After he’d won the European Cup for them for the second time, he asked the directors for a bonus. They declined, and he quit. Benfica fans, apparently, say that he cursed the club never to win another European Cup. Not true, of course, but they have appeared in five finals since then, and lost the lot.

The secret of ‘The Red Shoes’

16 July 2009

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The Red Shoes isn’t the best of Powell and Pressburger’s movies – that title would come down to a duel between A Matter of Life and Death and Colonel Blimp. But it was certainly the most profitable, and also the most influential.

In Pressburger’s biography there are accounts by both men of why the film was so successful.

Powell put it down to timing; it caught the change in the post-war mood:

I think the real reason The Red Shoes was such a success was that we had all been told for ten years to go out and die for freedom and democracy, for this and for that, and now that the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for Art.

Pressburger, with less of eye to a good aphorism, thought that audiences were able to understand the sense of the whole film – in a way that critics were not:

Michael and I have made several good films, among them several better films than The Red Shoes. Why then is The Red Shoes by far the best known film that we have made? Those who try to see it with magnifying glasses (like most critics) see only the rough, the crude, the immature bits (especially the last sequence between Vicky and Julian in her dressing room). But audiences understand better; they inhale mechanically the air of the whole thing and find something disturbing, something mysterious, almost – dare I say – religious, something which they feel must be true, without having been told what.

Famously, the film inspired Gene Kelly to make An American in Paris. And it inspired others, too. In 1988, I produced for Channel 4 a series called Comment, which filled with opinion pieces the short gap between the end of the news and the start of the soap at 8pm. It was usually recorded in the studio, but I had a small budget for location filming. Through his publisher, a then very frail Michael Powell agreed to record a Comment, and we drove to his house in the Cotswolds to film him. He had prepared soup for the crew; his wife, the film editor Thelma Schoenmaker, kept an eye on him to make sure he didn’t tire himself.

I’d worked with the same crew before, on other shoots. Afterwards, the sound recordist was quite emotional. When he’d seen the name “Michael Powell” on the call sheet, he said, he hadn’t imagined for a moment that it would be the film director. It’s quite a common name. But seeing The Red Shoes as a youngster had made him want to go into film and television production.

The picture at the top of the post is from the blog Verdou, which has a fine long post on many aspects of The Red Shoes.

Gangster Macbeth

11 July 2009

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Love&Madness‘ setting of Macbeth, currently at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, moves it from mediaeval Scotland to a pub in ’60s London gangland, and like all such translations something is lost – and something is gained. On balance, I think the gains outweighed the cost.

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest play, and drives relentlessly through its short scenes. It takes a couple of scenes to get used to the combination of ’60s decor and Shakespearian language, but as you do, the intimacy of the studio theatre becomes claustrophobic. The gangster framing also emphasises the ties of blood and loyalty, and the closeness of violence to the surface (and as much personal as business), which can easily get lost in a more traditional presentation.

Power is an aphrodisiac, and the Love&Madness production captures this well in the sexual relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which becomes more physical as the moment of Duncan’s murder approaches.

Obviously the witches present a problem in a modern setting; they are the most primitive – or primeval – element of the story and don’t sit well in a post-enlightenment world, even one where the paint is peeling from the walls. The production dealt with this by turning them into folk musicians, almost straight out of the Troubadour, and having their curses sung. This has the strength of making the witches more like a chorus, with bursts of video for the scenes from the cauldron, but at the same time makes them less evil, and more detached. Arran Glass’ singing wasn’t the best, but was compensated for by Kate Robson-Stuart’s sinuous violin.

I liked the way the audience were drawn in to the story, being offered snacks from the buffet at the supper after Banquo’s death (and at some productions, though not this one, a glass of wine from the bar as they arrive). We could have had a seat at one of the pub tables, but weren’t that brave. Shame the audience wasn’t  larger, but we did go to a Saturday matinee. It’s on at the Riverside, in repertory, until 28 July.

Gideon Haigh on the Ashes

10 July 2009

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The Australian journalist Gideon Haigh is probably the best living cricket writer, certainly in English, and during 2005 we had the luxury in England of having him write a column in The Guardian – later edited, quickly, into one of the best books on that epic series.

Sadly, the advertising downturn means that there’s not a repeat performance for this year’s series. Happily, though, the internet means that we can still access his coverage is Australia’s Business Spectator (and if that seems strange, it’s worth noting that Haigh also wrote, pre-crash, one of the best books on the dizzying corporate greed of the last 20 years).

Here’s a couple of good moments from his coverage so fa, three days into the first Test of the five-match series:

From his preview (which also includes a characteristic flourish about Churchill and the Dardanelles):

The five-test series was for a century the standard unit of international cricket rivalry.  Now it is only played by the format’s pioneers over the course of Ashes.  Late last year, England played West Indies in a Twenty20 match that lasted less than three hours for a grubstake of $US20 million.  For England to now spend seven weeks playing Australia mainly for honour and glory seems almost unpardonably decadent.

On Pietersen’s dismissal by the Australian  spinner Hauritz in England’s first innings:

The beneficiary of Pietersen’s largesse was a deserving one: Nathan Hauritz, said so often not to be Shane Warne that he must sometimes feel like issuing a pre-emptive public apology.  Hauritz would have been an onlooker had Brett Lee maintained fitness, and still seems to lack the variation necessary to prosper at the top level.  But the delivery in question could hardly have been improved on, drifting away toward slip and dragging Pietersen so wide that he almost ended up on the neighbouring pitch.

And on Hughes’ dismissal by Flintoff in Australia’s first innings:

Taller, stronger, Flintoff’s first over to Hughes almost justified his selection on its own, five deliveries from round the wicket bouncing sternum-high, a sixth veering past the outside edge, bowler following through down the pitch with his jolly jacktar’s swagger.  The ball hit Prior’s gloves with a satisfying whack rather than the clang that sometimes emanates from them.  Hughes was in Year 10 when Flintoff made the Ashes of 2005 his own: this must have been like living out a still-fresh schoolboy fantasy.

More daily at the Business Spectator.

Some of the best books on bike racing

5 July 2009

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I’m never sure about posts which are basically lists, but I have been mulling this one over for a few months now, and there will never be a better moment than this year’s Tour de France ‘Grand Depart’ in Monaco to share them. So here it is:

Best introduction to the Tour de France: Inside the Peloton by Graeme Fife Fife – a prolific cycling writer – manages to combine both the sense of the sport and how it works, as well as the history of the race and most of the ‘grands’, the riders who have dominated it.

Best inside account by a professional: Paul Kimmage’s book A Rough Ride. Kimmage, now a sports journalist, was a successful amateur who never won a race as a professional. His book, published in 1990, was the first to break ranks on the sport’s drugs culture in the ’80s, and he was ostracised for most of the ’90s. But the book does more than this; it gives a feel for the life of the journeyman pro (in the same way, say as Eamonn Dunphy’s Only A Game did for football in the ’70s).

Best Insight Into being a team domestique: Domestiques are the team riders who can’t win for themselves, but ride for their leaders, preventing breakaways, chasing them down, keeping the pace high in the mountains, and so on. A Significant Other by Matt Rendell (based on Victor de la Pena’s diaries of the 2003 Tour) catches this better than any other. There’s a splendidly geeky section on the physics of the peloton, and a fine chapter in which de la Pena explains his team role in detail on one particular stage.

Best fictional account: Tim Krabbe’s The Rider – a novella about an amateur race, seen from the perspective of one of the riders. Almost existential.

Best book written by an insider about a pro team: A tie here, and both are about professional British cycling teams, about fifteen years apart. In Wide Eyed and Legless, Jeff Connor (a former fell-running champion-turned-journalist) is sent to ride the Tour stages ahead of the race and also report on the ill-fated ANC-Halfords team, under-prepared and under-financed, as it falls apart during the race. Team on the Run is written by John Deering, the press guy of the Linda McCartney team, funded by the vegetarian food company, and by Paul, who comes out of the story well. There are some highs – an unexpected win in the Giro d’Italia, for example – before the money goes astray.

Best book about racing as an amateur – or maybe just the best book about racing: The Escape Artist by Matt Seaton, a wonderful account of the slightly obsessive nature of the amateur rider. It sets the tone with a well-judged description of a tricky but exhilarating part of a favourite training run, and also of his first experience of riding fixed wheel at the Herne Hill velodrome (which ends calamitously). This is about cycling as a way of life – which comes up hard, later, against his wife’s illness and early death. I’d say it’s the best of all of these books.

Other cycling posts:
Reaching the heights, touching the void

In praise of Mark Cavendish

Cycling and painting

Doping, cycling and the Olympics

Sporting records, limits and technology