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Thursday, 23 June 2016

"A man who salsa dances"

Those who know me even vaguely know that dancing and I are not two things you associate. Me and tirades on dark German metaphysics, yes; me and fancy footwork, no. Me and comedy awkwardness, sure; me and serious sashaying, doubt it. Me and fluid, coherent, sexy prose, perhaps; me and fluid, coherent, sexy moves, uh-uh. So the fact that I ended up in salsa class – once and once only – was as much a shock to me as anyone.

In my attention-seeking uni days my strategy was to hit the floor with limbs flailing and feet jumping in the most outlandish display I could muster, that would inevitably descend into either fits of laughter or minor physical injury, more Dadaist protest than co-ordinated rhythm; since then I am the one nodding at the back at gigs, only putting my hands half-way up in the air, like I just do care, and pulling the terrified gurn and frozen muscles when someone suggests I need to get up at a wedding do.

It’s not that I wouldn’t love to be someone with the effortless coiled-spring poise, light touch and physical ease of a dancer, but then I’d also like to be capable of levitation ­– and the fact that neither of these things is the case doesn’t trouble me that much day-to-day.

No

The idea was first mooted on a weekend walk with some friends, when one of the group said she was thinking of going and wanted someone to go with, turning to us with the challenge “The problem is they don’t have enough men.”

“Let’s stop this right here – I am NOT going salsa dancing,” was my unequivocal response, and that was that.

I am not ready to be “a man who salsa dances”, I said. To me that means one of two things: either you are a lean, athletic, swarthy, confident, ostentatious type, who just has to let the rhythm out – which I am patently not (the rhythm is fine kept in with me, thanks) – or you are a bored, middle-class white person of a certain age who has watched Strictly and is desperate to show the ladies that you do, in fact, have some heretofore unsuspected Latin passion bubbling away under your pudgy, middle-class-white-person-of-a-certain-age exterior. I could be that man. And I really didn’t want to be.

So there

A few weeks later a second female friend, who had been on the walk, messaged me to say “Salsa tomorrow. Are you coming then?”

Hadn’t she heard me? Ah, but there "could be ladies there", she said, which was a rotten power-move. You see now, if I said “no”, I wasn’t just saying “sorry it’s not for me”, I was saying “I am a miserable hermit spinster who just isn’t interested in making any effort to get out of the house and meet anyone, so I better not whinge about being on my own ever again because it’s my own fault.” Do you see what she did there?

I said no.

A (one) sexy lady

She went along, and told me there was "a" sexy lady there – imagine it! – and also said it was really good fun and very relaxed, and I caved. What could it hurt? If nothing else I could enjoy being amusingly awkward and uptight and making dryly humorous comments throughout, I thought. It could be fun to be that man, I'm used to being him.

It was only when I told people I was going to do it that it became clear there really is something in this men are from Mars, women are from Venus bullshit. The polarity of the responses was marked. Virtually every woman I told gave me a variation of “Oooooh, you must go!” and virtually every man said “WTF? Why? Who even are you?”

When I arrived I was already sweating from the walk there and half expecting an hour or two of excruciating embarrassment, fumbling and bumbling about with various partners who would be throwing daggers at me as I awkwardly broke all my personal space rules as stiffly and sexlessly I could while failing to put anything where it should be at the right time.

Yes

But I was pleasantly surprised ­– there were a lot of people of all ages and types milling about, many complete novices, some serious enthusiasts, mostly completely normal looking. To start with it was all just footwork, first in big group as a warm up, then in sub-groups by ability. My friend was there, who reassuringly was still no dancer either – she more regularly dances like a 10-year-old at a birthday party and once got into some heat at a disco when her boyfriend had to explain to the woman next to her that she wasn’t taking the piss, she always busted moves like that.

So it was comfortable and fun and it was eminently do-able. A bit of practice and the scales fell from my eyes that this is what it’s all about, all just timing and posture, and with repetition and the right music I could feel the basics falling into place already. It was muscle memory, really, no different to playing guitar, which I can do. There was the odd moment when I had to try to explain that I wasn’t tensing my shoulders unnaturally, that’s just what they are like all the time, but my “witty” self-deprecating comments largely met with no response at all – this was serious business, and I guess they got nervous wise-guys trying to quip their way out of embarrassment all the time.

There was only one terrifying bit. In the big-group “free dance” at the end, the main guy would shout “change partners” every few minutes and I would be left in the middle of the floor flailing for someone, anyone, to grab me, feeling like I was back in PE class being the last to be picked... at which point I would have to plead with my new partner that “I can’t lead, I know nothing!” – a scenario which only needed me to notice I had no trousers on to be identical to a recurring anxiety dream – but I got through it.

What I really began to see was just how much this could help me improve things like balance, posture and physical confidence, as well as being a pleasant and relaxed social pursuit... this could be a good, healthy thing, I thought, never mind any pretensions of “Latin passion” or learning great floor-moves.

Then again, maybe not

The next week none of us friends could make it, but we agreed to go the week after. However, in that time I met and started dating someone by a route that had nothing to do with my dancing ability, to which, of course, one of my male friends’ responses was: “Well you know what’s good about this – you don’t have to go salsa dancing any more!”

It’s true, I haven’t been back. But that’s as much a matter of not having the time as anything – I didn’t feel the relief he thought I might have. It’s kind of a shame.

Sure, I also don’t have a raging urge to repeat my tiny taste of this other reality where I am “a man who salsa dances” either, but who knows – one day I might be persuaded again. Cha cha cha.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Never mind your dreams

"Will you stop telling my child to follow her dreams!" my friend snapped while telling me about the umpteenth animated film he had sat through with his hatchling.

He wasn’t exhorting me, he was exhorting the makers of the film for once again mining such an unimaginative seam for their central moral message. He had no argument from me, I understood. It’s not just that the message is somewhat overdone and obvious, clichéd and glib, it’s that the incessant drilling of such un-moderated aspirational spaff as "follow your dreams" is possibly damaging.

What? Damaging? Did I just say that? What kind of shrivelled, bitter old cynic am I? It’s a bit like saying "Yeah, love and understanding is over-rated", "Hugs are for losers" or "That Hitler guy was alright, y’know?"; but hold your Twitter-style backlash for just one sock-darning minute. It is not my intention at all to play the cynical curmudgeon here (for once) – in fact quite the opposite. I promise you, in my own perverse way, I will be working towards an arguably positive, touchy-feely message of a different sort by the time we are done here.

But first we have to wade through some hard-nosed realism, at least in a vague, cursory way, so shush and buckle up.

Side-bowl of sh*t

Young people especially tend to look at one with horror when one sneers at the "follow your dreams" mantra, and it’s very difficult to explain oneself. Because, I suppose, my position is a response to age, to having been about a bit and seen the outcome of dream-following - or otherwise - in oneself and others.

When you get to the point in your life where there is no doubt various ships have sailed, possibilities have narrowed and binding responsibilities have abounded, it really does all look a bit different, not to mention that you learn about the rather more shoddy, chaotic and still-oft-mundane reality of even the most high-powered and glamorous positions. So many "dreams" are simple fantasy and mirage – like an American tourist arriving in Peckham when they expected Britain to all be fairytale castles, bowler hats and tea. Other "dreams" come with a slew of unpalatable personal requirements and nature-of-the-beast necessities, making demands on your time, energy and integrity, that go a long way to taking the shine off. But if you’re not prepared to stomach that side-bowl of sh*t than you can’t reasonably say you "I could have been this or I could have been that".

It’s not just personal experience I'm grumbling from, I know friends and contemporaries of all permutations: Those who have followed whims and passions or those who have trod a safe, tried and tested path; those who have jumped careers multiple times and those who have stayed in the same one since early adulthood; those who have moved towns or even countries and those who still live where they grew up; those who are deeply entrenched in the corporate rat race and those who have maintained a little more independence; those who have made good money and a name for themselves and those who, well, haven’t so much...

Not one of them has an easy, uncomplicated life without compromise, stress, relationship issues, health issues, worries about "What’s it all about?", "Where’s it all going?", "Was it all worth it?", "Should I have lived my life differently?" – not one of them would say they have arrived at exactly where they wanted to be, or is vastly happier than everyone else. From the outside you may get envious looking at others, but when you talk to them properly about their problems, you quickly realise "Oh, yeah, they have their 'stuff' to deal with too." I couldn’t honestly say I’d trade places.

Every "could have" is an unknown

Because reality simply isn’t like TV, in fact TV has always done a terrible job of actually conveying what any job is actually, really, actually like, on a day-to-day basis – because it would be terribly tedious and impenetrable in its minutiae. The world of work is always infused with a little (or a lot of) strife, stress and struggle, negotiations and cut-corners, a million little petty problems to sort and demands to meet, often from unreasonable people who just don’t quite understand what is involved. This tends to be the case no matter what it is you’re doing, it turns out - even in so-called "glamour" jobs. That’s what getting things done and dealing with people is – it’s how the world muddles along.

Contrast that with the oh-so-simple dichotomy we feed our younglings with, of "follow your dreams" vs "settle for a safe and dull life". Bah! I say. Bah. For a start, I'm not even sure which I have done - I've followed some dreams up to point, I've given up and waved others on their way; I've settled at some times in some places, I've not settled at others in others...

And as if "dream vs settle" was really the only issue: What about "Is the reality of your dream what you think it is?", "Do you actually know what your dream involves?", "Are you prepared to put in the work or make the sacrifices to get there and maintain it once you do?", "If you got there are you sure you wouldn't want something else?", "How much compromise will you put up with?" and "At what point will you be able to say you’ve arrived?".

I’ve said it before – every "yes" to one thing is a "no" to something else. There will always be things you could have done otherwise, opportunities you had to let go in taking a particular path. But every "could have" is an unknown – and would come with its own unforeseen complications. And the contents of the world’s maximum security prisons are testament that it’s not always "Better to have regretted something you did than something you didn’t do".

Chronic failure issues

So here’s this black board in New York where people are asked to write up their biggest regret. And they do, and the result is rather humbling as passer-by after passer-by reveals they too have unfulfilled yearnings and missed opportunities.

But Ah! say the filmmakers, ah! (it’s actually a viral marketing vid for a university, of course, not an open-ended social experiment) – "Ah! What they all have in common is their regrets are all about not doing something." So the take-away message is supposed to be "Every passing day is another chance to turn it all around" - or to put it another way "It’s never too late to FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS! (enroll now)".

That is not the message I took away from this exercise, dear reader. No. What I took away was this: There is a whole generation of people out there with chronic failure issues because they’ve been sold the idea that life should be AMAZING all the time and everyone should be doing AMAZING things, fulfilling every ounce of potential they were ever given. If you’re not a rock star, high-powered lawyer, beach-dwelling, sky-diving scuba instructor or Steve-bloody-Jobs then, man alive, what have you been doing with your life? Haven’t you heard? YOLO, bitch! YOLO!

My God. It’s exhausting. If there is a solution to all this Sisyphean dream-chasing, it is certainly not, for my money, to renew the pressure and say "It’s not too late people, get back on the dream wagon!" I know people who do this, constantly raking over what could have been, what they haven’t got, what they couldn’t or didn’t do in the past and how it could have been different; and it's more misery-making than it is inspiring.

Stop.

My gut response is “STOP”. Stop beating yourself up about it. Life is tough and complicated and always has been. If you didn’t pursue something in the past there is probably more than good reason, even if you don't quite recall the full details – perhaps the opportunity was an illusion and never really there; perhaps you didn’t really want to do it on balance at the time; or perhaps there was just too much else going on, as life is simply not that simple.

Stop it. Sure, if you really want to try again and can try again, then bloody well do it - but if it's too much or just not possible then shrug and go "meh", and divert your attention and energy elsewhere. There is nothing you were "supposed" to be. Instead of agonising over where you "should" be or what you "should" have, start enjoying what you do have; striving for what is possible and within reach now, not ten years in the future; making the most of where you are and the people you are with; finding ways to do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do in the life you have. Start living that life, this life, not the imaginary one hanging over you like an albatross. Please.

If there is one "take-away message" from this video, it is that everyone has the same issues in their own way, so it’s normal and ok. Take comfort – most people also feel they missed opportunities, perhaps didn’t quite find their niche, perhaps don't have everything in their life as they'd like it, even if they seem to have it sorted to you, from the outside. Regrets are normal and fine. There is always more work to be done.

Not every square peg finds a square hole, and that’s ok – life would be dull and predictable if they did, and nothing would ever change. 

Moby Dick *spoilers*

Of course, I would never tell anyone not to "follow their dreams" – everyone’s dreams are too personal and deep-rooted for us to really understand from the outside, and it’s not for anyone else to say what any individual should do with them. But as general life advice, "follow your dreams" is just too simple and too ill-defined for me to whole-heartedly endorse; it has to be tempered with self-awareness, worldly wisdom and strategy – especially as it can be massively destructive and dysfunctional to pursue some things beyond a certain point. After all, it basically is the plot of Moby Dick, and that didn’t end well.

But while to me the urge to "follow my dreams" looks increasingly irrelevant with age, a less ambitious but related urge only seems to be increasing – the need to take time to appreciate things and recognise, seek out and do the things that give me joy, however small or seemingly trivial. Never mind high-powered ambition, it's following my passions in spite of the requirements of the day-to-day world that has become important to me, as a matter of maintaining robust mental heath and wellbeing - making room in my life for the continued presence of the things I enjoy and am interested in, whether it gets me anywhere in particular or not – it’s doing these things that make life better, here and now, not chasing any fantasy goal to attain somewhere in the future.

See, told you it would get touchy-feely.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Three months of jazz

So, as 2016 gets under way, 2015 will go down for me as the year when the penny finally dropped with JAZZ. “Oh great,” I can hear all my friends and acquaintances think, “that’s just what everyone wanted to happen – now he can be boring and pretentious about something else entirely.” More than one of them told me they thought I was into jazz already because I was “that type” - which I decided I would take as a compliment while knowing full well it really wasn’t. So lap it up y’all – here I go.

Jazz does have a reputation, to the outsider, of being boring and difficult, of “all sounding the same” and being either pipe-and-slippers music for old men or chin-strokey hipster music for slightly younger old men. Which perhaps I am now, so perhaps it's apt. But I can put a date on my jazz Damascus moment: September 26, 2015, when on a perverse whim in a record shop (yes, I still do that) I purchased some Thelonious Monk albums in a ludicrously cheap boxed set and found on playing - almost to my surprise - I think I actually really like this. And I didn’t stop playing Monk (whose middle name was “Sphere”, I found out to my utter glee) for a solid month. From there Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and Eric goddamn Dolphy, who for my money had to be the coolest cat alive before his teeth-grindingly avoidable death at 36 (younger than me now).

So What?

Now, I do pride myself on having eclectic taste but like everyone who says “oh, I like all kinds of music” I don’t really mean it – I have my preferred comfort zone of artists and styles I return to again and again, from which I occasionally take excursions as a kind of musical tourist; and I’m clearly rooted in rock and pop, particularly of the “alternative” sort, from about 1967 to 2007, just the same as many people of my age. I’ve had a couple of token jazz records in my collection for over a decade – y’know, the usual, Kind of Blue, Mingus Ah Um, a bit of Louis Armstrong – but they make their way out for a spin maybe once a year at best, when I fancy something a bit different, never quite gripping me enough to want to delve further.

"So what?" you may ask. It is not my intention to wax on about how "grrrrreat" jazz is, I know it’s not for everyone – what I want to convey is the joy, revelation and even relief of discovering and entering a whole new world at the advanced age of 38 that I previously only had a very sketchy and caricatured idea of.

You see Jazz is not just one thing as it seems from the outside, and it occurs to me that the same applies to whole areas of human endeavour that we compartmentalise as “a thing” without really knowing much in depth about the stuff that makes it up. For example, “rock music” or “modern art” or, going further, science, philosophy or – little bit of politics here, Mr Donald Trump – Islam. Again and again you hear people dismissing things under umbrella labels, having only come into contact with a couple of tiny iceberg tips of these things, assuming it’s all like that and they know all about it.

I Didn't Know About You

In jazz there is a wide spectrum of different sub-cultures and schools, historical developments and traditions, worldviews and attitudes contained under its umbrella that run the glut of human temperament and experience; from low brow to high brow, joyous to melancholy, warm to scary, jump-up to soothing, basic to complex, raw to polished, crowd-pleasing to virtually unlistenable.

The freaked out, hypnotic, spiritual "free" jazz Trane was doing in his final days has very little to do with 1920s swing or Dixieland, any more than industrial math-core metal has to do with Buddy Holly, though in both cases there is clearly a shared DNA. On the other hand much of the more challenging arty jazz of 1960s clearly shares a spirit with searching, experimental, iconoclastic music everywhere, from Stockhausen to Aphex Twin to Captain Beefheart - which is a spirit most big band swing, which is essentially popular dance music, is completely devoid of. My point is that within the box of “jazz” some trends are utterly in opposition to each other and some very little to do with each other - and the same can be said of rock music, philosophy and, Mr Donald Trump, Islam.

My Favourite Things

What is interesting about exploring a new (to me) world like this is it puts your tastes in a new light – I haven't just abandoned my previous taste in music and got a new one; rather, without even consciously intending to, I find myself looking for the same kinds of things I value in rock music.

It’s no mistake it was Monk that finally held my attention. A lot of the beginner’s recommendations (I'm ashamed to say even Kind of Blue) sounded a little too much like what I expected to hear, perhaps, so didn't capture my imagination. But I’ve always liked music that’s a little offbeat, surprises me and has a sense of humour - and Monk has that in spades.

I found myself astonished at his piano style, which seems to have come from outer space, as if his weird runs and chords are raising their eyebrows at the rest of the quartet - why did he play like that? How? He was a consummate eccentric and original, seeming to delight in the surprising note or strange clonk at the odd time, while remaining swinging, fun and accessible - perfect.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

On the other hand some things just don't survive the translation from rock to jazz or back again – in rock and pop there’s always been the whole simplicity and rawness thing as a mark of vitality and authenticity – virtuosity in rock happens, but has never been cool, really, whereas in jazz it’s practically essential. Meanwhile, while jazz clearly has its own silly fashions and image trappings - I was astonished to see the camera pan onto the audience at a Mingus concert in 1964 to reveal six or seven young men dotted about wearing "tea" shades indoors, at night - but even so, jazz has simply nowhere near the all-too-often style-is-as-important-as-substance nature of rock and pop. But that’s refreshing, as you find yourself able to jettison so much of the cultural baggage in the migration - there is a real freedom to entering such a new world as an outsider: You can shrug off the tired old conventions you are used to, but don't have to take on the native snobberies and etiquette of the new world if you don't want to.

To go broader on that point, delving into jazz that was largely being made in the 50s and 60s offers just a tiny bit of mental relief from the zeitgeist of millennial Britain (which much as I appreciate, can get maddeningly samey and stifling on occasion, it's got to be said) – the decades-old transatlantic jazz world is a recognisable one, but there is still a difference in how things are valued and interpreted, the importance not quite placed on the same things in the same way. It puts your own time and culture, and its ephemeral nature, in perspective - as any sustained brush with history does, of course.

A Love Supreme

Finally, I’ve found the mother of new, rich seams in my ongoing mining of all things music. When I discover a new old band or artist I tend to hoover up their back catalogue in a matter of months before I get restless and go looking for something new. This will keep me going for years. It's not just the music, it's everything that surrounds it - there are whole new terms providing me with endless amusement (“Third Stream”, ffs; “New Thing”, ffs). I've even found myself getting interested in the instruments in a way I haven't before - the family of the saxophone and how each member works; the existence of pocket trumpets and bass clarinets which, while not a shock, have simply never been on my radar before...

You think you know the world - but when you delve into that labelled box you thought you had pegged, with no need to know any more about, it's contents prove so rich and diverse you find yourself overwhelmed – and realise just how little you know and how limited your worldview is. Neither box nor world will ever look the same again, and that's a pleasant surprise and an optimism-fuelling lesson.

What if everything is like that? I'm pretty sure everything is like that.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

30 things I’d be happy to live without if my experience of them never occurred again

While one hates to be prejudiced, one can tell an awful lot about someone from the things they buy into – what they value or don’t value, what causes and practices they feel are important or not important.

Because it’s strange and surprisingly varied the things people care about, or more to the point how much they care about them. You think you know someone and then one day, blam! They tell you they see Jeremy Kyle as a moral compass, or never really liked the Indiana Jones films. The more people you meet the more you realise everyone’s barometer of what’s normal and what matters is different, and completely relative to the circles they are moving in.

Over the years the opinions and habits of your close family and friends get drilled into you and set a benchmark; it can be bewildering and disturbing when one day you find yourself moving in slightly different circles and find people noticing an unthinking practice, interest or attitude of yours - that has never been called into question before – and flagging it up as unwise, unattractive, bizarre or in some way tut-worthy. It’s tempting to think “OMG, I am actually a freak after all and I just never realised it all these years” – but then you get to know yet another set of people and find they have yet another perspective; and you realise perhaps you should have explained to the first lot that their ideas of what is acceptable and standard perhaps really wasn’t so f***ing universal, as they thought. The weirdos.

On the other hand, something you have been ribbed for for years by your home crowd can be immediately accepted by outsiders and that is nice, isn’t it, now.

Basically everyone thinks their shit is the norm, or what should be the norm – but my gosh, we are so tied to the culture, conditions, place and time we were formed in, even if we rebel against it. As a townie, I recall just how utterly alien it was to visit my first country show, for example, as it slowly dawned on me that much of the stuff that filled the lives of these people were things I had thus far happily lived without even being aware of, let alone caring about. And exactly the same could be said of the first time I visited, say, London, with them and their “ways”.

The following is not simply a list of things I’m not interested in. There are plenty of "life encounters" I don’t hanker urgently to experience, but I understand that one day, in a different time and place, perhaps I might.

Neither is this a list of things I hate, necessarily, and neither is it exhaustive. I don’t, for example, say I could live without racism on this list, but please don’t take that to mean I love a bit of racism or, indeed, find it moreish.

These examples are not things I wish didn’t exist – I may even feel enriched for having dealt with them in the past – they are simply things I wouldn’t miss if I didn’t stumble upon them again - a mix of either that which elicits naught but the blank face and that which elicits the weary sigh. Yes, some of this may be a mark of age.

We get so involved with our little worlds, our specific set of circs, that sometimes we forget it is possible to live a perfectly happy and fulfilled life without so many of the obsessions and so much of the baggage we insist on clinging on to as supposedly so important and essential - both physically, but more importantly, mentally. The human race is nothing if not adaptable, and one man’s gold dust is another man’s sand. It may seem sad or scandalous to you, dear reader, but seriously, I’m done with this stuff. Go on, think about it – what 30 things could you choose?

~------~

1) TV soaps

2) Synthetic handclaps used as a snare drum in modern RnB songs

3) Flag-waving patriotism

4) Inspirational quotes from Marilyn Monroe

5) Unsolicited offers to tell me “what I need to do” to sort my life out

6) Queuing to get into nightclubs

7) Going into nightclubs

8) Horseradish

9) Knowledge of flower arranging

10) De-icing my car

11) Being cold in general (that’s a bold one, but I’ve thought about it some and I stand by it)

12) Street dance

13) The royal family (that’s a bold one, but I’ve thought about it some and I stand by it)

14) Autotune used for the vocal melody in modern RnB songs

15) People telling me "everything happens for a reason" (see 4)

16) "This one weird tip to getting ripped"

17) Jeremy Kyle

18) Knowledge of bread baking

19) Details of the personal life of Lauren Goodger

20) People thinking it’s a great and admirable thing to be running around trying to impress people like Alan Sugar while being generally vile, shallow, mercenary and critically lacking in self awareness

21) The phenomenon of "beard flowers"

22) The songs of the war years

23) Motivational speaking

24) Torture scenes in films (enough, already, *yawn*)

25) Films about vampires

26) Films about men who are the best at fighting and stuff

27) Austerity measures

28) Modern RnB songs

29) Football (now that’s a f***ing bold one)

30) Your shit.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The strange case of Kanye West

He took one of the biggest entourages the festival has ever seen with him to Glastonbury – and then performed virtually alone for almost two hours.

Apart from the sheer irony of that fact, Mr West’s Glastonbury performance was the man’s whole thing right there in microcosm – the sheer ego of insisting on holding a headlining slot at one of the world’s most high profile festivals on his own on an empty stage; the grand statement in artistic minimalism that only partially worked; the disjointed flow of someone insisting on doing their own thing without any concessions to the audience; the fact that he looked rather lonely and painfully like he was trying to prove something amid the grand scale of the set up... and yet - whether wholly successful or not, he undoubtedly did end up having done something really quite unique and distinctive in the history of Pyramid Stage bill-toppers.

Not Fiddy Pence

I admit that I am utterly fascinated with Kanye – equal parts appalled at the oh-so-LA materialism, arrogance and excess, amused by his repeated foot-in-mouth buffoonery and absurd pomposity but, in spite of all that, still grudgingly impressed and intrigued with his originality, balls and, let's face it, strangeness. Whilst his mass populist appeal may belie the fact, it's pretty clear by now that the guy is pretty weird.

Say what you will about Kanye, he does have an artistic vision – I suspect a lot of those who signed the 100,000-odd petition against him headlining Glasto saw him as no more than an arrogant rapper – you know, one of those hiphop types who steal other people’s records and talk over the top about cars and shooting people, whilst being frightfully disrespectful about women and overly impressed with flashy jewellery. Not like a nice "real" band who diligently learnt to play instruments quite well n that.

But oh, though. While there is plenty of hiphop trope-ery in his music (The late Lou Reed was spot on describing some of the more offensive lyrics on his Yeesus album as “it might be (funny) to a 14-year-old — but it has nothing to do with me”) Kanye is so not your typical “Fiddy Pence” hiphop cliché. The man reads up on minimalist architecture and wants to design high fashion in Paris for crying out loud. Pretty much right from the outset he distinguished himself as a bit odd and high-minded in hiphop circles, to the extent his middle-class producer ass really wasn’t taken that seriously as a rapper at first – nowhere near “street” or gansta enough. Until he started selling records. And yes, the Glastonbury debacle, whatever you made of it, pretty much showed that – whether you rated it or not, he’s going off somewhere on his own these days.

Imma mention "Imma let you finish"

I suppose one of the things that keeps me interested in Kanye, despite having written him off as “just a knob” countless times, is the tantalizing explanation for how a man can be so utterly, complacently, self-deludedly certain of his own unique greatness, way beyond even the massive egos of his contemporaries – and the answer is of course, that he clearly isn’t. I have never known anyone so desperate for the affirmation and approval of others, an unquenchable hunger that speaks of a deep, deep insecurity – that if the arbiters of art aren’t saying he’s THE BEST, it can never be true. Other artists rise above, and pooh-pooh the validity of, mere popularity, titles and awards - but it really, urgently matters to Kanye.

The key to understanding his attitude goes way back. He mentions in interviews his eighth grade basketball coach who, without explanation, didn’t put him on the team, making him realize if he doesn’t fight for recognition himself, he will not get it. And no matter how successful he is that seems to remain. Today this extends those he sees as "his people" as well – he has apparently offered to stage “Imma let you finish”-style protests on behalf of others aside from Beyonce (his mentor Jay-Z’s wife) whom he keeps white-knighting for at awards ceremonies.

He also keeps claiming those who don’t immediately bow down to his greatness and let him do whatever he wants must be prejudiced against him. While I’m sure he has a point that there are still race issues in the upper echelons of showbiz, and there is a sneeriness at a rock star trying to do fashion and so on, there is something a bit rich about one of the most rewarded and privileged men in music claiming he’s hard done by – when his success has opened up so many more opportunities than the vast majority of anyone could ever dream of - and to add to that, he happily tramples over and dismisses the efforts of others (Ms Swift, Beck?). He has a persecution complex on a par with a UKIP MP, which he doesn’t seem to realize is only made worse, not better, by his constant fronting.

Whatever, Kanye is an angry, troubled man, and it’s right there in the music. His confidence is hollow and vulnerable, which is never clearer than, say, in the contrast of the messiah-complex lyrics to “I am a God” with the panic-attack screaming and panting that inexplicably accompanies it. Again, in the words of Lou – who, by the way, was actually a fan – Kanye’s last album was full of “I’m great, I’m terrible, I’m great, I’m terrible - that’s all over this record”.

Neither Finn nor Freddie

And it was right there in the Glastonbury set too. The first and last parts were a greatest hits package that at least proved that Kanye is a bit like Crowded House (probably the first and last time he will be compared to the lovely, low-key, down-to-earth Finn brothers) – you know more than you think. There is quite a variety of sound and style there for those who will listen - but overall it was a glimpse into quite a cold, steely, serious world of one man’s angry head-space.

When I tuned into Glasto on the dear old BBC my initial reaction was “OMG, this is a bit of a mess”. Never mind Lee Nelson’s stage invasion (Jarvis Cocker would be proud), there were bits where the momentum just completely dropped: Partly as he insisted on an extended auto-tune ballad section in the middle that just made it plain he couldn’t sing; partly as there were drops and disjoins as it seemed he'd only decided on the set list in the dressing room 10 minutes before going on; and partly due to technical errors (he abandoned "I Can’t Hold My Liquor" after barking out a couple of lines and letting the guitar bit run). It simply wasn’t as slick as you might have expected, given that f***ing entourage.

And, as social media lampooned, it really didn't demonstrate that he was “the greatest living rock star on the planet” as he claimed – he just doesn't quite have the effortless showmanship of say, a Mick Jagger or James Brown or – yes – Freddie Mercury. In fairness, I don’t really think his intention was to sing a cover of Bohemian Rhapsody at all, he was just joining in karaoke-style as he span a bit of the record in the middle of his gig - ‘cos, why the hell not. But never mind his singing, his stage presence wasn't quite Freddie either, though there was something hypnotic about seeing what he would do next - earlier he had abruptly left the audience hanging, stage in darkness, for minutes before reappearing on top of a f***ing cherry picker. This was not Kiss – no pyrotechnics, no costume change, no zip wire. Just Kanye up a crane. But it was when I noticed he had left the stage lit but completely empty during this for two or three songs, that the contrary pervert in me giggled with glee at the audacity – while it might not have been “history in the making” as he meant it, I think he may have been right, in a way - that had probably (certainly) never happened before in a headlining Glastonbury slot.

Where was "Mike"?

More than a week on and the more I think about it, the more I think the whole thing might have been brilliant. People are still talking about it. The image of him in his bleached double-denim under those ludicrous banks of lights is burned on all our mental retinas. It was utterly simple, yet utterly unique. When Jay Z did Glasto, he turned up with a full band, turned on the charm and opened with a deliberately shambolic few verses of Wonderwall in a cheeky nod to his critics which won everyone round. Not Kanye. No, the massive ego took to the stage, barely acknowledging the audience, with only those huge f***-off whirring modern-art-installation lights, an Akai MPC sampler which he used for about three seconds, a fleeting side-stage visit from a man from Bon Iver, and the shady, hidden-away (imaginary?) “Mike” for company. It was bonkers, really, and it split Twitter in two like samurai sword.

He will never endear himself to people who like their rock stars nice and pleasant and down to earth, and I am sure he is quite a horrible human being to do any kind of business with. No, he can’t really sing, he can’t really play and he can’t really dance. He is a deluded cock.

But there is something of the classic, larger-than-life, maverick rock oddball about him - the combination of ego and art, the clash of the crass and the highbrow, striving to reach beyond the confines of his genre with one foot (or two) planted in a fantasy world of his own making, in the vein of a Prince, Bowie, Gaga, Bush or, um, Trent D'Arby. And while the music might not be to everyone’s tastes, I’d go as far as to say I think he is the real deal as an artist – he is genuinely a bit strange, driven to change, full of fire and a-buzz with unusual ideas and creativity - and he has the balls and passion to do his thing, whatever anyone else thinks.

I’m never sure if I’m laughing with him or at him, but I’m quite glad he exists – in world of increasingly styled, tried-and-tested, as-expected, by-the-numbers acts, he’s at least reliably different and interesting. All day, n****.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Rock is the new jazz ~or~ on the now-perceptible retreat and fossilisation of guitar music

Given its status nowadays as a decidedly niche musical preference (albeit with a large, passionate and dedicated following), it’s worth remembering that for decades it was the unrivalled popular music of choice. At the heart of western culture, it was the soundtrack to everything from dance floors to household chores, Sunday drives to happening dives, concert hall gigs to student digs, newsreel footage to dinner parties. No, that last one didn’t rhyme.

But as the century wore on, previously fringe and underground musical styles began to change and coalesce into something new, something burgeoning and breaking through, that all the kids were listening to... and one day it was just obvious: The tried and tested old stuff just wasn't the mainstream any more.


But enough about the decline of rock music.

Ha, ha, ha! Yes reader, and ha. You can see what I’ve done there, I’ve pretended I might be talking about jazz, but actually – imagine this! – I was talking about guitar rock! See?

Ok, everyone saw that coming (or were probably just confused) but my point stands – I actually, genuinely, think guitar rock is finally over as THE mainstream form of popular music. What slowly happened to jazz when rock came along - well, now it’s happening to rock.

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

I’m aware it’s an old eye-roller of a joke – people have been saying this kind of thing ever since that bloke from Decca Records didn’t sign the Beatles because “guitar groups are on the way out”. The end-is-nigh for guitar music has been announced fairly regularly throughout my entire life – notably with the breakthrough of synth-heavy music in the early 80s, and then Acid House in the early 90s. But in the past couple of years, the “death of guitars” call is less the combative, iconoclastic battle cry of those who want to wash away the old, and more the sad, keening air of those who have begun to notice the lack of it and miss it. Which I think means it might actually be happening.

I stopped having my finger on the pulse somewhere around the early 2000s when the height of exclusive hip-dom was still the glitchy IDM (intelligent dance music) of WARP records, and whatever the hell Radiohead were doing post-Ok Computer. But though my interest in modern guitar bands may have waned, I was dimly aware there were various children ten years younger than myself with wild hair, yelping into microphones, banging on drums and – yes – hammering the guitar strings. Good for them, the wanky little urchins, I’d think.

Their disappearance has been so slow it has been almost imperceptible. I assumed the reason I nowadays only ever heard Cowell-or-Brit-stage-school-style pop produce, or banging beats, or in-tha-club hip hop, or electro r'n'b, or twee hipster folk, or faux-50s dinner-party crooning, was that I simply don’t look around any more; so of course I only ever come into contact with the most mainstream of mainstream. Which is almost certainly true – but, importantly, guitar rock used to be part of that. Now I’m not sure it is - unless it's 40 years old, in which case it's ever more everywhere, as Black Sabbath plays in your local tea room and The Sex Pistols in your supermarket.

Teenage Kicks

I recently happened to take a look at the schedules of a popular generic young persons’ radio station and it was a bit like taking the car in for a service assuming nothing much was up - and finding all kinds of shocking developments under the bonnet. The range of music played was as expected, but the focus wildly changed. All the little genre-specific dance, hip hop and urban shows, those wannabe-cool nods to credibility these stations like to throw in - once lodged in late night slots on a Thursday or summat – they now make up the bulk of the schedule. Meanwhile general guitar-based pop and rock music (and not just the niche stuff) – well that’s now lodged in late night slots on a Thursday or summat.

Mentioning this to a teacher friend of mine, he confirmed that da teenage kidz he teaches have slowly stopped dreaming of buying guitars and forming bands as the years have gone by. In his current year only one child does this, but rather than being seen as a too-cool-for-school rebel, he is seen as a bit odd and geeky for it. The rest, if musically inclined, would much rather get mixing software for their tablets or a synth plug-in that can make those sick WOB-WOB-WOB sounds.

This is really what clinched it in my head. I remember being that age, when there were various options for what genres of music to get into to assert your individuality – and then there would be that kid who was into jazz. Now, jazz would be so far off the teenage cool map that it didn’t even register. It wasn’t even something your classmates would have much of an opinion on – it wasn’t trendy, counter-trendy, hip or sad; it was just odd and unknown. Jazz was the kind of thing your mate’s more cultured dad, with his expensive hi-fi system and massive record collection, would sit with a glass of port and listen to. You knew it was once hellish cool, but a world away from the current teenage experience, in another time and place. Ok, so maybe we’re not there yet, but give it 20 years, maybe 25 – and that’s exactly what guitar rock will be.

It’s All Over Now

I'm NOT saying there won't always be people making guitar music and a wide audience for it - after all jazz is still alive and well - just that it is steadily losing its undisputed place at the centre of pop culture in more sustained way than we have previously seen.

No, guitar music is clearly not dead, not by a long shot – but what is happening is it is becoming ever more niche, and ever more like museum-piece music. It is fossilising. As with jazz, which underwent massive changes from the traditional swing of the inter-war years through hard-edged bebop and high-art free jazz to the funky Latin and fusion stuff of the 1970s, at some point hence the whole scene has just begun to shrink and retreat from the public imagination – and in the process has crystalised into primarily historical music.

As with jazz, rock no longer sounds NOW. It is past-times music, to be emulated as best as possible, y'know, like back in the days of the greats whose like we will never see again. Today it virtually always sounds like it’s heavily referencing something from at least 25 years ago – which means its glory days have very clearly long gone.

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

This backwards referencing has been gaining ground for some time. Sure, every generation has its novelty throwbacks, but beyond that the rock music journalist’s default for cool has been stuck on post-punk English mod and/or New York rocker style since about 1979. Oh how they adored it when Blur started wearing tufty haircuts and parkas like they might be from Quadraphenia or summat. And oh, how they jazzed their pants over the "subway tan" of NY punk revivalists The Strokes. In the UK, Britpop was a new high for nostalgia in rock music – everyone at that time was constantly banging on about The Faces, The Kinks, The Who, and... um... Paul Weller (including Paul Weller), while others were posturing around in glittery brown and orange 70s attire and yelping like glam-period Bowie.

Ever since such retro-fetishism has become the norm, but it wasn't always thus - directly before that was the massive break-through in alternative rock music where all manner of previously undergrounds forms – thick sludgy grunge, psychedelic noise rock, wistful indie jangle, industrial synth goth, livid rap-metal hybridisation, strum and bass et al – began to get serious air play, and suddenly anything seemed possible and acceptable. Of course I’m biased because this happened to coincide with my teenage years, but that now seems like the last golden age of guitar rock. Genres still seemed to be rapidly developing, with fresh ideas, on a mass scale; as opposed nowadays, where you seem to get to the odd isolated individual experimenter beavering away somewhere while everyone else does genre-precise recreations or light-entertainment-showbiz takes on classic rock.

Ashes To Ashes

Why guitar rock appears to have finally fossilised is not just about age, but also about technology. One element is how cheaply, easily and authentically one can emulate the sounds of the past now – as digital modelling technology has made this accessible to all, so all have made retro-sounding records. Also, with all music, from the dawn of recording onwards, streamable and downloadable along with everything ever written about every artist, the whole history of guitar rock is now at everyone’s fingertips – and a crushing, paralysing history it is for anyone with pretensions of doing anything remotely original in the field, or trying not to be too influenced by the sheer weight of it.

Rock has gone through repeated phases of establishing a tradition, then modernising and breaking away from that, only to return later in a post-modern fashion. In fact the whole of the 2000s was pretty much one long post-modern period for guitar music as it regurgitated its own history in multifarious forms. But, as with all post-modernism, where do you go from there?

Thanks to communications today, everything is at once so interlinked that it threatens to become homogenous and so fragmented that it threatens to become too dispersed (which sounds like a contradiction, but really isn’t) and music is no different – I suspect the days are simply gone when unique, self-contained “scenes” could spring up in a city in isolation before breaking through into the wider world 18 months later. A muso kid in Seattle is as likely to be trading beats with someone in Paris as hanging out down their local live music bar.

But all the same, as a music fan and consumer it’s a massively exciting time to be alive – because you can get your hands on an artist’s entire career output in one swoop, and delve into any strand of musical history you like. It’s immersive. Which ironically explains why I’m not that bothered there’s not much in the way of new, vibrant, interesting guitar music coming through – as there is still plenty of old golden age stuff to discover which is still new to me - but then I’ll soon be of the expensive-hi-fi-massive-record-collection-and-glass-of-port-dad age, so I suppose that’s only right.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

My Valentine's Day Massacre ~or~ romantic notions I just don't find romantic (sorry)


So here are a few words on romantic BS for Valentine’s Day. Well ok, a day after Valetine’s Day, because yesterday I decided I’d rather write about Heidegger instead.

The One #1

First of all I’m not even going to give the idea that there is only one destined soulmate in the entirety of existence – who, of course, just happened to live in the same town and go the same gym as you – the time of fucking day. That’s clearly moronic. So let’s move on swiftly...

But – there is a less extreme version of “The One” theory which is much more common to find in otherwise perfectly sensible and intelligent people: The idea that in order for you to be really happy in a relationship you must find someone who is a perfect fit.

The One #2

A lady friend once asked me: “Don’t you think that’s a beautiful idea?”

And I said: “No. No I don’t. I think it’s one of the most destructive ideas in the sphere of relationships.”

Which may not have earned me any romantic brownie points but, y’know, it was honest. Which is what the ladies love. Um.

Anyway, I meant it – if you insist on a perfect fit you will never find it. You are dooming yourself to always find fault with whomever you are with, to be constantly convinced there’s someone better, more fitting, with greener grass, somewhere out there.

It’s akin (and closely related) to the insanity of a bride who insists every tiny detail MUST BE PERFECT on their wedding day – in which case, ironically, the thing that is most in danger of ruining their day is their own hyper-sensitive stress-out over the fact that every tiny detail MUST BE PERFECT. I’m sure – in fact I know – that many a promising relationship has been scuppered by the obsessive-compulsive questioning "OMG but are they The One?!" In fact, in truth, when I hear a potential partner say they believe in “The One”, in my head I substitute it with “An ideal to which I will never live up and to which I will be constantly reminded of how I fall short.” It saves any misunderstanding in the long run.

There is simply no way – no way at all – that you can spend an intensive amount of time every single day with anyone, even a “soulmate”, and not occasionally – or even often – get bored of each other, annoyed with each other, rub each other up the wrong way and need some time out from each other... in other words, notice the fractures and dis-joins between you. Relationships are never “perfect fit”, no matter how similar or compatible you are. The strongest and happiest couples I know have had to work at it, find a balance, compromise and adjust to each other, at least a little bit – the difference is, is that when you love each other, you want to do that. To some extent you make someone “The One” by your commitment to each other and your ongoing shared history.

The One #3

Which is not to deny that some people are more natural, suitable and compatible with each other. Absolutely there are couples who work and couples who just don’t, people who are automatically good together and people who just aren’t. But this is like friends – I have lots of close friends whom I would say are soulmates in one way or another, in that there is something in both of us that just clicks. But, interestingly, it tends to be a different part of my personality that each brings out – all are equally “soulmates” but all are different. It’d be a nonsense to imagine there could be a “perfect friend” that would cover all bases.

In the same way each relationship you have is different, because by the mingling of your personalities you create something unique, and that’s the joy of it. I’m afraid, when it comes to soulmates, I am very much a pluralist – I believe there are lots of people out there you could be compatible with, who have the potential to be your, ahem, “One”, and each would give rise to a different flavour of relationship. It is part of life’s rich tapestry, variety, diversity. To imagine there could be only one “right” person who fulfils every possible desire you could possibly have, seems to me just... pathological.

The One #4

Finally, to sound horribly un-romantic and pragmatic for a moment, the reasons people couple up and stay coupled up are really not just all about eternal rom-com-style perma-bliss, emotional fireworks and silly adolescent ideals – love is also about simple snug contentment, comfort and support. Being on your own is both emotionally and practically tough at times – not just lonesome, but logistically challenging when you have no one to share your burdens with, whether financial demands, personal problems or just house-hold chores. If you find someone whom, after years of living together, you still find reasonably cute, sexy, cool and interesting, whom you feel safe and comfortable with, who still makes you laugh and doesn’t do your head in (much) – well, then you have done pretty darn well.

*****

Enough about "The One". Here are some other bullshit romantic notions:

Rules of relationships

The women’s magazine and self-help-book-style “a man should act like this and a woman should act like this otherwise your relationship is doomed” lists of rules that some over-analytical type has come up with, having read about one or two flawed psychology studies and talked about it with their awful friends.

No. Just no. Unless it’s based on thorough and extensively replicated science across cultures and generations, no. There is not any one-size-fits-all way a relationship must be. People can be very different with very different temperaments and needs, and relate to each other... differently. You must be tolerant, you must allow for this, it's the 1990s for Chrissakes. Relationships are alchemical and irrational, and you can’t force them into a single, predictable mold, no matter how much you want to nail them down and control them.

Also, call me strange, but I actually find it deeply unromantic and actually kinda disrespectful for someone to be only in love with their partner inasmuch as they can jump through a set of hoops and fit a pre-conceived template. And, as above, endlessly stressing over whether these rules are being adhered to will create problems where there were none. Cut loose.

It was/wasn’t meant to be

This makes my blood boil, probably because I’ve been told more than once by a girl that we weren’t meant to be” or that it was “fate” or “destiny” that she be with someone else.

Oh, great. That makes me feel a whole lot better, I’d think. So let me understand this right: It’s not just that you have decided you don’t want to be with me any more... no, THE FUCKING STARS HAVE ALIGNED to make sure I get dumped. Destiny has decreed that we must not be together. God Himself has cupped his hand and whispered in your ear “Yeah, bin out that loser, go off with that other guy, he’s much more dishy.”

I mean to say. Fucking rich, what?

Banging on about stuff being fated, destined, or happening “for the best” or “for a reason” is just kind of an insult to all the countless people who are shitted on, fucked over or ignored when they really didn’t deserve to be, I always think. If everything happens for a reason and everyone has a destiny, why the hell doesn’t everyone die happy and fulfilled? If life is indeed all pre-determined then, given all the pain and suffering and injustice in the world – that regularly goes un-rectified – then that’s just awful. The Greeks understood fate properly – if there is such a thing, it is not fluffy and nice, and it is not your friend – it is a terrible, terrifying thing, and responsible for endless tragedy.

Grand gestures

Finally the rom-com staple. Of course, it’s delightful when your significant other goes out of their way to do something wonderful and thoughtful and amazing for you. Of course it is.

But grand gestures are the cherry on the cake, not the be-all-and-end-all of romance. 100 slick grand gestures don’t mean someone is your soulmate, it just means they are slick and practised at this grand gestures crap, which can just as easily be hollow and manipulative as genuine and loving.

Again, call me crazy if you will, but I’m convinced real romance is not really about flashy fantasy shit like that. It’s not in the forced, showy, hoop-jumping gestures on Valentine’s Day – it is in the little, spontaneous, everyday things:

The warmth of each other’s embrace at the end of a long, tough day; the sense of fun and adventure you still get together on a night-time walk home through the park; the knowledge that even when you’re miles away, you’re still both there for each other, no matter what; the knowing looks thrown back and forth at a social gathering, when you both know what each other is thinking but don’t have to say it; all the little things you do thinking of each other, almost without thinking... You know what, screw grand gestures. True romance is not demanding or aspirational, it’s warm, open, honest, nurturing and supportive, it’s happiness and it's home. It’s your favourite old T-shirt, not your best suit.

Love is something that sparks between two flawed beings, who for some reason or another are drawn to, and chime with, each other, whether for a while or for the long term. It’s the feeling of belonging together, the sense that the other person may be a fuck up, but they’re your fuck up – that you value each other and what you’ve developed together, enough to not want to lose it or mess it up; it's the feeling that you want to face the world standing shoulder to shoulder, respecting each other as equal partners in crime, both as individuals and as an item... that’s what real love and romance mean to me.

The rest is all bullshit.