Tuesday, March 21, 2017

About Girlz Wetter


I’ve been sorting through a whole load of storage crates over the past few weeks, some of which have been undisturbed for 13 years or more. Inevitably some of the contents prompt a certain sting of nostalgia: in a few cases I can recall the precise circumstances in which I acquired a particular book or record, or wrote or drew something. But I’m also coming across things that push no buttons whatsoever, even if I feel they ought to.


One such example is this copy of the fanzine Girlz Wetter. Although maybe calling it a fanzine is to overstate its significance. It’s a single A4 sheet of pink paper, folded into a pamphlet tiny enough to fit in your wallet. There’s a review of a gig by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an interview with Jef Steartfield of Plan A (me neither) and a rather NSFW 14-point “Guide to Being a Groupie”. And that’s your lot, as the back cover announces in no uncertain terms.

The thing is, I have no memory of how I came into possession of this piece. At first I assumed I must have got hold of it in about 1997/8, when I spent a lot of time on the Camden gig circuit: it was hidden amidst a pile of compilation CDs from that era, boasting tracks by the likes of Dweeb, Midget and The Bigger The God. But the Yeah Yeah Yeahs reference pitches it forwards, to 2001 at the earliest.

What’s interesting about that is that by then it would already have been something of a throwback, as the early rumblings of blogging and social media started to encroach of the turf of print zines. And what’s more, it makes no attempt to perform even those limited gestures of social interaction that print can offer. There’s no information about who the author may be, not even a pseudonym; no contact details, not even a good old analogue PO Box; it’s just there, in your face, make of it what you will. It’s entirely devoid of context, whether in itself or in terms of my own memories. And there’s something rather magnificent about that. I’d be intrigued to know who created it, but at the same time, I quite like the state of ignorance in which I find myself.


Monday, March 13, 2017

About Nazis



INT: ITV HQ - DAY

Big flip chart with a graph headed “VIEWING FIGURES” and a line pointing down.

Tony (Commissioning Editor): So, Simon, as you can see, what we really need is a blockbuster to lure them back.

Simon (Producer): Hmm. What sort of thing did you have in mind, Tony?

Tony: Well, what’s really getting them excited is Nazis. Swastikas over Buckingham Palace. SS marching down Fifth Avenue. That sort of thing.

Simon: Hmmm. OK, Tony, this is just off the top of my head... but what about a series that shows what would have happened if the Nazis lost the war?

Tony: Lost the war? Bloody hell, Simon, that’s so insane it’s almost brilliant. Tell me more.

Simon: Right, bear with me. Germany invades Poland and quickly takes over most of Europe. But Britain manages to hold out, Hitler overreaches by invading Russia, the Americans join the Allies after Pearl Harbour and following years of carnage and deprivation, with millions of people dying, the Nazi threat is finally vanquished.

Tony: Woah. This is blowing my mind, Simon. So what happens to Hitler?

Simon: OK, get this. Hitler dies. He. Dies. I haven’t thought of the details. Maybe he could shoot himself. In his bunker. Goebbels and some of the others do the same. But most of them are executed. One or two could escape to Argentina — which gives us a potential sequel.

Tony: But isn’t this going to offend people? Insulting the reputations of the brave hypothetical British resistance who didn’t sacrifice their lives to defeat the non-existent invaders?

Simon: I think we should take the risk, Tony. I see a closing montage of ravaged cities and concentration camps, a stern warning to viewers about the dangers of racist demagogues and a reminder that European nations should work together in peace and harmony...

(He tails off. Uncomfortable silence.)

Tony: Simon, you do realise that people like these shows because deep down they wish the Nazis had won after all?

Simon: Yeah, I guess you’re right. OK, shall we do the other thing?

Tony: Yes, OK, let’s do that instead. It’s less risky. Move back the News at Ten for an utterly inept and unfunny chat-show that everyone will take the piss out of on Twitter. Is Walliams free?

Monday, March 06, 2017

About American Gothic and the perils of familiarity


And so to the Royal Academy for America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s. Or, let’s be honest, to see one painting, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which as any file kno depicts the artist’s sister and the artist’s dentist, dolled up as bloody miserable farmers. And so there’s a fluctuating knotlet of gawpers around this one painting and by the time you edge your way between an elbow and a buttock to see it, a sense of disappointment is on the cards. Especially because a far better, more memorable and disturbing picture by Wood, Daughters of Revolution, is on the opposite wall, getting none of the love.


It reminds me of when I first went to the Louvre, at the age of 13. Obviously I took a peep at the Mona bloody Lisa, because that’s what you do, and I reacted the way everybody else does, remarking on how small and brown it is, and going off to look at the Davids instead, because they’re more fun (even if Napoleon is basically Hitler with a better tailor). And, just a few weeks ago, finally getting to see Lord Leighton’s Flaming June in situ at the artist’s gaff near Holland Park, on a brief respite from its Puerto Rican exile. Yes, yes, it’s a nice enough painting and it’s definitely fun to see it displayed exactly as it would have been in Leighton’s studio, but again it’s some of the other, less familiar images, such as Twixt Hope and Fear, with its subject’s bold, almost accusatory gaze, that catch the imagination.


So what’s my bloody problem? Why can’t I respond with appropriate reverence to something that’s widely hailed as a masterpiece? Is it just that I’m already bored with its very ubiquity, its status as a tea towel, a fridge magnet, a meme? Am I so hungry for new sensations that when I go to a gallery I demand to be surprised? And yet, if American Gothic hadn’t been in the exhibition, I probably wouldn’t have gone. Maybe that’s the deal; big ticket paintings act as a sort of aesthetic loss leader, getting in punters whose imagination is instead grabbed by something else.

Or is it just me?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

About Lazarus

So I went to Lazarus, which was great. And yes, it is a jukebox musical, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The London run is almost over, so most of the things that need to be said about it have already been said, but what surprised me is how filmic it is — not just the inevitable back projections but the wide box in which all the action takes place, as if everything’s being shown in Cinemascope; the actors seem there but not there, flickering images on your retina. And yes, Michael C Hall is Thomas Jerome Newton from The Man Who Fell To Earth but not Bowie, and he’s not trying to be.

And inevitably I thought about what and who else is here but not here and what’s happened between the show opening in New York at the end of 2015, when Bowie was alive and would never die; and now, when a pantomime villain, a malevolent space beast has Fallen To Earth. 2016 happened, of course, and all the wrong people died.

And I thought about what art is going to look like in a world with the Bowies dying and the Trumps in charge, the people who fused Newton’s eyes still pulling the strings; and I went home and drank cold gin (I didn’t really) and ran my fingers over the scars that can’t be seen and read this depressing article in the FT about culture under Trump and this even more depressing article in The Quietus about the commodification of the alternative, not to mention the fact that his people don’t seem to think that hip-hop is properly American, and then I read about the government’s bright idea to turn the UK into a sort of cold, porridge-coloured Singapore (I went there once but it was closed) and all the stars that never were will try to sell mortgages to the stars that never will be and the only theatre will be jukebox musicals, but not like Lazarus. And there will still be music, but not like Bowie’s, more like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

About this year: Farage sings Bowie

As part of the all-encompassing need to package up time into arbitrary chunks and assign specific characteristics to them (and yes, do read my book about the Noughties, you know you want to), 2016 has been identified in most of the valedictory reviews as a year of a) seismic political shocks; and b) dead celebrities. Of course, this is partly a matter of perspective; if you spent most of the 12 months cowering from barrel bombs in Aleppo, it’s possible that the demise of David Gest may have left you less than moved.

But even in more peaceful parts of the world, I wonder whether this neat labelling of the year is that accurate. For many people, of course, the results of the Brexit referendum and the US election weren’t at all shocking; they came either as a pleasant surprise or simply as a natural fulfillment of all that is right and good in the world; and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the people who were happy enough with those developments were also those who weren’t too upset when the news came in that David Bowie or Prince or Carrie Fisher wouldn’t be seeing 2017. I did get into a minor online skirmish with one gentlemen who couldn’t understand why so much more attention was being paid to the death of a “poofter” such as George Michael than to a salt-of-the-earth denim-clad rocker like Rick Parfitt of Status Quo, who had left us the day before.

Now, no disrespect to the late Mr Parfitt, who plied his trade with commitment, energy and self-deprecating humour for nearly 50 years, but I think the common thread that unites many of the big-name, blue-chip deaths of the year (Bowie, Prince, Fisher, Michael, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, even poor old Pete Burns) is that in their lives and their work they interrogated and challenged fundamental, preconceived notions about gender, race, sexuality and more. Parfitt, bless him, didn’t. And – I’m just running on instinct here, with no empirical data to hand, but bear with me – the people who supported Trump and Farage tended to be the same people who wished those notions had gone happily unchallenged, who yearn for a time and a place when America is great again and the Black and White Minstrels are still on the telly (it’s just a bit of harmless fun) and there’s honey still for tea. For them, 2016 was about political triumph and vindication, with maybe a bit of sadness that Rick Parfitt died.

It’s a small matter in the greater scheme of things, but I’ve got a morbid yearning for both Trump and Farage to show up on Desert Island Discs, so we can find out what really pushes their cultural and emotional buttons. I’m guessing neither of them would pick a Bowie track – unless Farage is prepared to admit that his go-to karaoke piece is ‘The Laughing Gnome’.

PS: While we’re on the subject – who’s going to play at the inauguration?

PPS: Ah, question answered. Thanks to David Jacobson.


Monday, December 12, 2016

About The Electrical Storm


The Electrical Storm is less an autobiography, more a series of fragments, episodes in apparently random order that together attempt (and probably fail but that’s part of the joke, I guess) to illuminate the life and work of Jerry Thackray (alias The Legend! and/or Everett True). The key problem (and the reason we need the book) is that, as the multiple pseudonyms suggest, Mr True is not easy to place in a box. He’s a journalist, an editor, an academic and also a musician, creator of the first and worst-selling single ever released on Creation Records. But he prefers more grandiloquent, quixotic labels:
I am not one of those Rolling Stone guys who rate their own importance. I am not an NME head. I am not a hack with delusions of literary grandeur. I am not a fucking music journalist. I am Everett True. Read my CV, it tells you right here – “Insurrectionary, tastemaker, loser”.
The narrative bounces back and forth in time and space between Brisbane and Brighton, Seattle and London, Chicago and his Essex birthplace. He drinks a lot, dances a lot, fights a bit and seems to spend a great deal of time not quite having sex. He invents grunge, but he’s talking about the Happy Mondays at the time. He watches the Rolling Stones with Sheryl Crow and wets himself. Tales that would have been extended to a whole book by a more earnest hack (eg getting teargassed in Siberia) are dismissed in a few lines. It probably helps to know at least a little about the contexts in which he works, the identities of Calvin and Karen and the woman whose husband plays the guitar left-handed, but it’s not essential. You just get pulled along for the ride.
Ultimately, it’s all about identity. Sometimes True appears to get bored and hands over control to one of his friends, to tell a tale of how they met. Sometimes he just seems baffled, a new Brian hailed as a pop Messiah:
Within 20 seconds, there are thousands upon thousands of people chanting my name. “Everett True. Everett True.” What do they want from me? “Everett True. Everett True.” Why do they call my name? I cannot mend anything.
And occasionally you have to wonder how much is a drunken dream, as he mentions a detail then immediately tells you it’s a false memory. But throughout he’s at least trying to be honest, as counterintuitive as that may seem in a post-truth society. His vulnerability is real and raw. Dislike me or find me obnoxious, please don’t forget me,” he begs during an interview — one in which he’s meant to be the journalist, not the subject. And later (or is it earlier?):
I’m on the plane and Seattle is twinkling and I want to stay circling the city forever… I’m wondering if anyone’s ever going to want to listen to my stories again.
What really makes The Electrical Storm work is not the stories themselves; it’s the tension between True’s professional selves. Ultimately he’s a fan — the two most telling tales are about how he got into a fight with another journalist over who loved Dexys Midnight Runners more; and time he danced so energetically at a Nick Cave gig that the great man hit him with his mic stand and True, not Cave, ended up occupying half the subsequent review.
Like the man, like his work, it’s not an entirely smooth ride. But The Electrical Storm is well worth the blackouts and bruises.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016