The Specials at Wolverhampton Civic Hall

It’s like the eighties all over again in Blighty. The diabolical Tories are the incumbent government (come on, nobody takes the Lib Dems seriously), there’s mass unemployment, rioting on the streets, a parasitical royal family revered by their subjects and squaddies patrolling another foreign sovereignty. Oh, and The Specials are back, their seminal single, ‘Ghost Town’ (“Government leaving the youth on the shelf”/”No job to be found in this country”), as much an anthem for a doomed nation now as it was then. Shame on the principals of modern day popular culture for their political apathy.

An apathy which seemed to infect the predominantly shaven-headed, polo-shirted. Bovver-booted crowd (and that was just the girls) before The Specials arrived on stage at Wolverhampton Civic Hall for the latest leg of their third run of reunion shows. As a montage of images from the past three decades was revealed on a giant backdrop, there were predictable boos for the Iron Bitch, Blair and Cameron (the bastard monster child of Thatcher and Oswald Mosley). Yet disconcertingly, not a single voice was raised in anger at the sight of the horse-faced Windsors (who never seem short of public cash in a recession), while a picture of a blubbering Paul Gascoigne, the very embodiment of boorish English laddishness, was met with the kind of braying footy-style chanting beloved of, well, practitioners of boorish Engish laddishness.

But let’s not get mired in polemic here. This was, after all, about the nostalgic pull of the music – music which, given its ska origins, was even nostalgic first time round. And remember, for every ‘Ghost Town’ (saved ‘till the encore), ‘Rat Race’, ‘Gangsters’ and ‘Too Much Too Young’, exemplars of social commentary, The Specials were about making us pogo our woes away with the likes of ‘Enjoy Yourself’, ‘It’s Up To You’, ‘Do Nothing’ and Cecil Campbell’s ‘Too Hot’.

Terry Hall presented a brilliantly lugubrious fulcrum around which Neville Staples worked the crowd energetically, with guitarist Lynval Golding providing occasional comic relief. The rhythm section of Horace Panter (bass) and John Bradbury (drums) put in a shift as big on imagination as it was on industry.

There’s hardly ever been a more apposite time for The Specials to return to the studio.

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Waits’ strangely beautiful sound world

The advent of a new Tom Waits album (Bad As Me – his first since 2004’s Real Gone) sent me back the other week to Swordfishtrombones, the strangely beautiful sound world that marked not only his 1983 Island Records debut but his reinvention from pathos-soaked barfly to utilitarian roots man with a freak show fetish. It was a revelation then, particularly since the only previous Waits album I’d heard was 1974’s Closing Time. The shock of the contrast rattled the fillings in my teeth. 

Closing Time was real good in a standard singer-songwriterly kind of way, which may read like faint praise but isn’t. The songs have a whole lot of heart and some of Waits’ most beguiling melodies.

But Swordfishtrombones was something else, a composite of say Captain Beefheart, Harry Partch, Jackson Pollock and Weegee, from the sleazy ‘Shore Leave’, through the foundry clang of ’16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six’, to the unbearably poignant ‘Soldier’s Things’. It was the original of the curious species that evolved into Waits’ singular creation on subsequent releases and remains, round here at least, his most compelling collection. 

Waits, like Bob Dylan, has always flagged up another America, a place with a thrilling sub-culture populated by wasted and wounded characters like Kerouac, Burroughs and Bukowski. He prised the rag from my ears and caused me to weep rivers of tears. He wore better hats than Frank Sinatra. The word is that Bad As Me will affirm his reputation as the maverick maestro of junkyard opera, everybody’s favourite cult artist. This parish is stilled in rapt anticipation.

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A Ry look at the world gone wrong

The song as a social document – a concept as old as song itself, though one less applied these days. Step forward Ry Cooder, whose new album, Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down, does what Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger used to do back in the day. It stands up for the little man against the monolithic institutions that would, without compunction, see him buried.

Comes as no surprise, of course, given that Cooder’s music has always had a healthy strain of social conscience. Long before Bruce Springsteen (on The Seeger Sessions) was mining the rich seam of the American folk tradition for compositions that have contemporary resonance, Cooder was doing the same thing. In recent years, he has actively engaged as a writer with a vanished America on Chavez Ravine, I, Flathead and My Name Is Buddy.

And so he continues on Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down. Chief targets this time round are those odious bankers and George Bush, whose ignominious presidential legacy is still being felt on the home front and in Afghanistan, if not more accurately, the world over. In a recent interview, Cooder declared: “Those scum-sucking dogs from the Republican Party and their lackies in the screen media, people like Fox News, they all deserve to be shot! In fact, I have my own idea of what should happen to them and the bankers!” A sentiment with which I concur, though shooting the bastards wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as shooting them after administering some of the torture methods perfected at GuantanamoBay.

Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down is not just right-on in terms of its lyrical sentiment – it also has some of Cooder’s best tunes yet, not least ‘No Banker Left Behind’, ‘El Corrido de Jesse James’, ‘Dirty Chateau’, ‘Humpty Dumpty World’ and ‘John Lee Hooker For President’. Given that John Lee has passed, I suggest Cooder would make a far more suitable candidate when Americans go to the polls next year.

 

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Van is still The Man

Takes more energy to frown than it does to smile - the cuddly curmudgeon

Occasionally, at moments of respose, I ponder the big questions. Can’t the world see that what the international media have labelled the Arab Spring is just a con, and that what we’re really witnessing in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya is western imperialism galvanised by oil greed? Is the British electorate so amnesiac that it has forgotten how the perfidious Tories virtually brought the country to its knees in the eighties and nineties? What is the point of Nick Clegg? Surely somebody must be up for abducting Bono and cutting out his tongue to prevent the irritating little bastard from appearing as a talking head on every documentary broadcast on telly? And who’d be a member of Van Morrison’s backing band?

Taking up the theme addressed by that last poser, the six men behind Van the Man at Birmingham Symphony Hall on Friday elicited both my sympathy and my admiration. Sympathy because they were subjected to drill sergeant Van’s finger pointing method of calling for every solo, and admiration because they maintained their composure and resisted the instinctive temptation to stick one on him.

I am, of course, being frivolous. For who on earth could bring themselves to stick one on the cuddly curmudgeon, the genius composer of Astral Weeks? None but a philistine would attempt such a thing. These musicians, decked out as though for an undertakers’ convention, submit to Van’s quirks because in return he stretches them, he compels them to infuse their playing with soul, to feel rather than read their way through the shapes. Both he and they were bang on it in Birmingham. And believe me, I’ve seen Van on occasions when he couldn’t be arsed, when he cruised through a two-hour set on autopilot. Not this time.

The opening ‘Moondance’ laid down a jazz and blues marker from the get-go, Van blowing some seriously sonorous sax (as he did throughout the evening). Those about to rock were in the wrong building. This could have been Ronnie Scott’s relocated to probably the finest concert venue anywhere in the UK, such was the breadth and intimacy of the performance.

He judiciously plucked songs from his back pages, and so we got ‘Fair Play’ (Veedon Fleece), ‘It’s All in the Game’ (Into The Music), ‘Into the Mystic’ (Moondance), ‘In the Garden’ (No Guru, No Method, No Teacher) and a brace from the aforementioned Astral Weeks in ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ and ‘Ballerina’. ‘Georgia on My Mind’ and ‘St James Infirmary Blues’ affirmed where Van was coming from, invoking the ghosts of Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.  

Mercifully there were truncated versions of crowd pleasers ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and ‘Gloria’. The latter gave way to a searing ‘Help Me’, Van shuffling off the stage with the comedic gait of a Goon, the disappearing enigma. He’s still The Man when he wants to be.

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Captain Beefheart – Fooling the mind

Captain Beefheart - a true original

I live in a house where the playing of Captain Beefheart’s seminal Trout Mask Replica is strictly forbidden. Like a surreptitious porn fetishist, I can only get fast and bulbous when there’s nobody else around. All attempts to plead the great Captain’s case, to convince others of both his genius and that of the album, have fallen on deaf ears. Or rather ears that just don’t want to hear anything other than something familiar. Something they’ve heard before. Over and over and over.

Beefheart was a one-off, a true original. This is a conviction many of us held long before he passed on last December. You see, the death of someone with a degree of fame (or, probably more accurately when discussing Beefheart, notoriety) has a tendency to bring the worms out of the woodwork. A kind of post-mortal deification of the deceased takes place. But let’s face it, for much of his life Don Van Vliet was regarded by most of the planet as either curio or charlatan. The same people writing heavyweight eulogies about Beefheart couldn’t have cared less about him when he was alive and producing art with words and music and paint that was – pardon the cliché – childlike in its essence.

Beefheart didn’t discard, he hoarded. His sound and vision was unencumbered by external constraints. He didn’t conform to any criteria. There was no plan. The Captain challenged us, dared us to listen for the flower in the barbed wire.

Speaking about his mercurial approach in 1991, he said: “I think that most people would like to think they have an idea. Well, I’m sure my mind thinks that I have an idea, but sometimes I fool it and get my best stuff.”

One of the many insights into a brilliant artist that can be found in a revised edition of Mike Barnes’ essential Captain Beefheart: The Biography, published by Omnibus Press.

 

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Ladies and gentlemen, the new Dylan

The advantage of having a teenage rock guitar god for a son is you get to hear some really cool stuff you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, a whole swathe of sounds outside the realm of middle-aged dad’s listening preferences. I thought it would be different, that I would turn Dylan onto Tom Waits and Van the Man and Bob Dylan, from whom he got his name. But that hasn’t happened. Yet. I haven’t given up hope that he will some day have an epiphany like the one I did when I first heard The Times They Are A-Changin’.

In the meantime he’s got me into Black Veil Brides, Avenged Sevenfold and Slipknot, and pricked my ears up to the fact that Slash is among the finest guitarists out there, not just a guy with a once upon a time prodigious appetite for self-destruction when it came to illegal substances, who wears a funny hat.

BVB, by which acronym Black Veil Brides are known to their dedicated army of war paint-wearing fans, belong to the metal genre but are really more than that. Their songs rock with the kind of pop sensibility on which Thin Lizzy’s commercial success was predicated, even if Jake Pitts’ soloing is considerably more daring than anything the Irish band’s Brian Robertson, Scott Gorham or Gary Moore ever played.

But Dylan Burke will, I predict with immense parental pride, eclipse all of them when he comes of age. At 14, he is already frighteningly good. That he possesses the kind of looks guaranteed to make him a poster boy is, of course, an added bonus. Remember the name.  

Rock guitar god in waiting - the new Dylan

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Anarchy in the UK – Blame it on Beckham

As far as determination to force a policy onto the public consciousness goes, it was a bit extreme. But the Tories (let’s face it, nobody outside the Lib Dems takes them seriously as government partners) finally got their ‘big society’ message over this week. Whether it was the ragbag coalition of rioters and looters from London to Liverpool, the broom-brandishing locals banding together to clean up Boris Johnson’s bullshit from their streets, the vigilante mobs in Enfield and Eltham (a nostalgic throwback to the days when the species known as the football hooligan, later to metamorphose into white van man, used to terrorise the indigenous populations of European cities) or Dan Snow, the square-jawed, middle-England incarnation of Charles Bronson, the community ethos Cameron and his cronies have been trying to flog for months, was embraced. Mussolini, of course, had his own ‘big society’ in 1930’s Italy. It was called fascism.

Londoners get tooled up to confront rioters

The dust will eventually settle on this thing – probably when the new Premier League season kicks off this weekend. Nothing, after all, is more important to this country than the national game. Even impending global economic Armageddon won’t deter the media groupies from lauding obscenely wealthy morons who think Dostoyevsky was a Russian midfielder – obscenely wealthy morons, incidentally, who could have been among the hoodie hordes liberating JD Sports of its stock. There but for the grace of a half decent ability to head a ball goes Rio Ferdinand.

Ferdinand and his ilk – spearheaded by the very dangerous David Beckham, who, even with a lobotomy and a voice like Norman Wisdom’s Pitkin, is some kind of antichrist with a Forrest Gump-like instinct for opportunism – represent the ignorance and the worst excesses of a culture in which fame and wealth are the predominant aspirations. A culture that allows the famous and the wealthy to flaunt it, has to expect that those who haven’t got it will get it however they can. And I haven’t even mentioned the MPs who robbed from the public purse, or the bankers who have turned the whole world into a potential third world.

To explain is not to excuse. But explanation of what caused the rioting and the looting is necessary. And with explanation comes responsibility to address those causes. The Tories, who remain the party of choice for the patriotic and the prosperous, couldn’t give a fuck about the new underclass that emerged from Thatcher’s decimation of the working class. The absence of a Labour alternative makes further anarchy in the UK almost inevitable. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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Gillian Welch album worth eight-year wait

It’s been eight years since Gillian Welch’s Soul Journey. Eight long years during which she and partner Dave Rawlings could have put out three or four albums, such was the volume of songs they wrote. But Welch and Rawlings set a high watermark for themselves with Revival, Hell Among The Yearlings and Time (The Revelator), and so many of those songs were dispensed with.

“Even our best songs I feel walk a line of such understatement, that if they fall off it at all, they’re just boring,” Welch told me last month.

“There’s not a lot of sis-boom-ba in our songs. One way they can air is to simply be too flat. So how do we know they’re not working? When they bore us. Because we’re the ones who have to live with them through the years. The songs that we do like, for me they’re really a kind of a balancing act. They’re almost a magic trick, a tightrope walk between confessional and narrative and traditional and modern and now and then.”

The Harrow & The Harvest, described by Rawlings as “10 different kinds of sad”, has certainly been worth the long wait. Welch’s lonesome delivery, the aching notes Rawlings picks out on guitar and narratives that recall the Gothicism of Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music – all of these things make it a piece of work that will transcend the frivolous culture that defines the new millennium.

If you have a mind to, you can read my full interview with Welch in the next issue of R2 magazine, published in September. In the meantime, here’s Welch and Rawlings performing ‘The Way It Goes’ (from The Harrow & The Harvest) on American telly.

 

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In praise of John McCormack

Just returned from the old country, where the familial ties that bind were pulled tighter and I got hopelessly drunk on sentiment. Among the treasures I unearthed while there was Angel’s Serenade, a John McCormack compilation of religious songs. It’s nearly enough to make a believer of me.

But not quite. McCormack came from Athlone, the next big town west of my own home place of Mullingar. He was a big deal, trained by Vincenzo Sabatini in Milan, a star in Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana at Covent Garden and later in America, and compared favourably to none other than Enrico Caruso. Someone to swell Irish hearts with pride.

I knew none of this while growing up. McCormack didn’t even occupy a position on the periphery of my particular orbit. He belonged to another time and, perhaps more accurately, another class. The kind that made opera and classical music elitist. It wasn’t for the likes of me.

Then I read an interview with Tom Waits in which he cited McCormack as an influence. If you listen to ‘Innocent When You Dream’ from Waits’ Frank’s Wild Years, you’ll hear that influence explicitly. Anyway, if McCormack was alright with Tom, he was alright with me. I’ve been a devotee ever since. Have a look at this clip and you’ll realise why.

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Richmond Fontaine’s The High Country – A Small Masterpiece

Ernest Hemingway - in pursuit of the "one true sentence"

Ernest Hemingway wasn’t yet a novelist and living in post-World War One Paris among the so-called lost generation of expatriate Americans, occasionally struggling, as every writer does, to find his voice. Finally, he recalls in A Moveable Feast, his memoir of that time, “I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard somebody say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scroll work or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true declarative sentence I had written.”

What Hemingway articulates as the “one true sentence” can be read, it seems to me, as a simplified explanation of literary realism, the objective of which is to nail life down on the page as it is lived, not only in terms of narrative but dialogically as well. That’s a more problematic objective these days given that so much of modern life is lived in the realm of fantasy. We exist in a mass media construct where our aspirations, our likes and dislikes, how we use language, the way we love, even our wars, have all become homogenised. Is anything really real anymore except suffering? And in this context, who are the writers uncorrupted by fantasy who advance Hemingway’s search for that “one true sentence”?

Willy Vlautin is one, I would suggest. Both in his fiction and in his songs (with Richmond Fontaine) he conveys as authentic a representation of the fucked up, forlorn and freakish as you’re likely to get anywhere in the creative medium.

Willy Vlautin - authentic voice of fucked up and forlorn

Richmond Fontaine’s 10th studio album, The High Country, reinforces the above assertion. Of course, it will trouble none but the few diehards who believe Vlautin to be Charles Bukowski reincarnate with the ability to carry a tune. Which is a bloody shame. It would have been described, once upon a long ago, as a concept album. Song-novel, orAmericana opera, seem to be the preferred designations among the Richmond Fontaine fraternity.

Set in a rural logging community in Oregon, its protagonists are a mechanic and an auto parts store counter girl whose secret love impels them to at least try to escape the darkness of the world around them – the drugs, the violence, the madness, the loneliness, the sheer fucking desperation.

The 17 tracks range from stark monologues (‘Inventory’, ‘Claude Murray’s Breakdown’) through garage rock (‘The Chainsaw Sea’, the name of a bar set back deep in the trees under whose concrete lie the bodies of a fat man and a hooker) to gut-wrenching ballads (‘The Mechanic’s Life’, ‘The Eagles Lodge’). It is a small masterpiece.

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Filed under Charles Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway, Richmond Fontaine, Uncategorized, Willy Vlautin