Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Things that Come Into Your Head

While out on my usual ramble around the town this morning, I found myself thinking about dead musicians. Elvis, John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Liam Clancy and David Bowie. Why those five? God knows, but maybe because they were all, more or less, of my generation.

I never had any real interest in Elvis and always saw him as a cover artist whose fame came as much from his pelvis as his larynx. While there’s no denying his social importance, I would submit that his musical influence extends no further than pub singers and your Dad murdering The Wonder of You at your wedding. It always irks me when the mid-1950’s are referred to as The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll, and Elvis crowned king of the genre. The music existed years before Alan Freed decided to christen it, and I’ve always felt that the real Kings of Rock ‘n’ Roll were the mostly black performers who were ripped-off and then consigned to the bargain bins of history.

Since the 1960’s, the Beatles have been my favourite band and I still listen to them regularly. Lennon and McCartney are immortal songwriters (and let’s not forget George Harrison whose great talent is often obscured by the brilliance of the other two) but, except for his 1970 album with the Plastic Ono Band, nearly all Lennon’s post-Beatles work leaves me cold. Is there, for instance, a more hypocritical song than Imagine? A multi-millionaire and one-time IRA supporter warbling about no possessions and giving peace a chance! Double Fantasy? Apart from one or two tracks, it is, I think, a middle-of-the road collection of little or no lasting interest. When it comes to life after the Beatles, give me McCartney and his four or five brilliant albums any day.

By one biographer’s account, Frank Zappa was not the kind of parent or spouse anyone would want, but as composer and musician, he was one of a kind. My head is full of his music and I count some of his original vinyl albums among my prized possessions. But Zappa, being Zappa, always forged his own path, and sometimes that path led him into lyrical territory at best juvenile, at worst grossly obscene. Occasionally, he concocts a perfect blend of humour and music (Moving to Montana, Sofa No.2, and the album We’re Only In It For The Money) but, mostly I like him best when he shuts up and plays his guitar.

Like most Beatles fans in the early/mid Sixties, I had no interest in the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Some years later, when I heard of Bob Dylan’s regard for the group – in particular, Liam Clancy – I checked out the latter’s eponymous first solo album. I loved it then and I still love it now.

More than forty years later, he released The Wheels of Life. It's not perfect: occasional murky production and saccharine arrangements detract from it, but transcending these reservations is the sheer quality of Liam Clancy's singing. I never thought anyone could surpass Kate and Anna McGarrigle's version of Talk To Me of Mendocino but, into a mere four minutes here, Clancy distils a whole universe of emotion. The way he sings those lines about the Rockies will stay with you forever. Even better is his version of The Broad Majestic Shannon. Here, the addition of a single extra word (Shane) transforms what is already a brilliant song into a magnificent elegy, a heartbreaking caoineadh for a great songwriter who has, temporarily I hope, sadly lost his way.

Over the years, I was lucky enough to see Liam Clancy perform live four times; the last occasion shortly before his death when he was visibly unwell. A few years ago, we visited his grave in An Rinn. I was moved by the sight of the small mouth organ someone had left there, but upset to see that the grave had obviously subsided and the memorial to this great man standing at an angle.

The nearest I ever got to David Bowie was an extraordinary gig in the Olympia in 1997, but he has played a huge part in my life. I have all his albums, spent hours in pre-internet days, figuring out his chords (Life on Mars drove me round the bend), read every article I could get my hands on (I still have scrapbooks of stuff from the 1970’s) and every book he recommended. But I stopped short of aping his sartorial versatility. At the Dublin premiere of The Man Who Fell to Earth, surrounded by wannabe Ziggy’s and Thin White Dukes, I was certainly out of place in my denim jeans and two-tone platforms. (I wore the same shoes on my wedding day and I’ll never forget the look in herself’s eyes as she approached the altar. I can’t believe you would wear those yokes!)

It would take too long to name all the Bowie songs I love, but two perennial favourites are Ashes to Ashes and Word on a Wing. There is, in fact, very little I dislike about David Bowie. Well, there were a few albums in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, and that Hitler Youth haircut and apparent Nazi salute in 1976 did have me asking myself ’what am I doing worshipping this guy?’

So, there you have them, the things that come into your head when you’re out and about. In the words of my nearest and dearest; aren’t you lucky that’s all you have to think about. And she’s right. I am, and I realise I am.

A Horse Walks into a Bar

Cast in the form of a club performance by an outspoken stand-up comedian (more Lenny Bruce than a smug, crowd-pleasing Tommy Tiernan), this is one of the most unusual, provocative and haunting novels I’ve read in ages. As you’d expect, there are loads of jokes, both terrible and brilliant (every time I recall the one about the parrot, I find myself smiling again), but this is a serious book that tackles serious issues head-on: family dysfunction and its effects on an only child; heart-rending grief and pain; the current volatile situation in the Middle East.

The writing is so vivid that I felt I was part of the audience; one minute reacting to the protagonist’s taunts; the next, feeling genuine sympathy as he cowered in a corner of the stage. No novel is perfect, of course, and I thought that the account of a truck journey was far too protracted, but for every such criticism, there was so much here that had me stuck to the page.

Like To the End of the Land, David Grossman's extraordinary 2010 novel, this is definitely not easy reading, but I think you'll find it more than worth your time and effort. And you’ll never forget that parrot.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

The Redemptive Power of Music

I sometimes feel that much of what I read about the therapeutic power of music is a mass of well-meaning but glib generalisations. But I have just finished ‘Instrumental’, a book about how the love and performance of music literally saved someone’s life. The British concert pianist James Rhodes suffered a childhood and youth full of unimaginable, yet all too real horror: this and its terrible aftermath are described in prose that will sometimes shock you to the core because Rhodes spares his readers as little as he spares himself. His short biographies of his favourite musicians are sometimes brilliant, sometimes annoying and, too often, his relentless, foulmouthed style vitiates the emotion – he certainly ignores that axiom that less is always more – but if you have any interest or belief in the redemptive power of music I urge you to read this book.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Morrissey's Autobiography

You could never accuse Morrissey of not having a balanced - and unhealthy -  diet of grievances; he has  bags of chips on both shoulders.
Ever the misanthrope (‘I've come to wish you an unhappy birthday’), his Autobiography has a go at everything and anything from Manchester - especially its school system - to  record companies, marriage, the judiciary, and his old band mate Mike Joyce (dismissed as ‘not even qualified enough to be a nonentity’).  His reaction to the death of Neil Aspinall, former Beatles road manager and head of Apple, is particularly nasty. Those who know Morrissey’s lyrics will find many familiar themes here.

Despite his often tedious vitriol,  I would still thoroughly recommend this honest, opinionated, sometimes infuriating, mostly admirable book. Apart from the protracted, self-pitying account of the post-Smiths court case, his style is never less than engaging and his characters, unlike so many of the cardboard cut-outs that litter the literary landscape, are made of real flesh and blood. The descriptions of his intensely Irish family are especially memorable and the short section dealing with the death of his beloved grandmother would move a heart of stone. In the proverbial nutshell, Autobiography is exceptionally well-written.
I found the pages dealing with his solo career much more interesting than those devoted to The Smiths. He has many striking things to say about the exhilaration of performing (“…. having never found love from one, I find it from thousands…’) but also emphasises the artist’s responsibility to his/her audience. I can’t, incidentally, understand his idolatry of the New York Dolls, or the 'winsome' Damien Dempsey (who 'captivates and enchants with all the love of one blessed and unselfish') but, as the man said, it takes all sorts.
Finally, I have to say –  as someone with only lukewarm affection for the music of Morrissey and The Smiths – that Autobiography  has resuscitated my interest to the extent of going back and listening to their albums again.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Noble Confusion

Sometimes I envy those who live their lives and die in the sincere conviction that there is a heaven and, all going well, a loving God awaits them there. Other times I think their self-righteous arrogance is matched only by the arrogance and self-righteousness of atheists. I have no idea whether there is or isn’t a God, whether there is or isn’t an afterlife, and I believe that, in the words of Brian Friel, confusion is not an ignoble condition.  
In Morrissey’s Autobiography, there’s a very moving page on the death of his beloved grandmother:  “ … I cry at the fixityof Nannie lowered alone into her grave; her very first time alone. She needs us still. The soul is not everything. Her face, her arms, her hands, they need us still, and they are what we know of someone, and all of these have gone. The soul is said to be somewhere, but the soul has only ever been visible through the eyes…”