Saturday, September 30, 2006

Frank Zappa

I've just finished Frank Zappa by Barry Miles and seldom has any biography had such a profound and unexpected effect on me. So much so, in fact, that I'm going to find it very difficult to listen to Zappa's music for a long while. Why? Because a lot of the songs I always took to be satirical, I now know to be mere explicit descriptions of his real-life predelictions. No-one expects their heroes to be saints, but we also don't like to discover that they have feet of clay or, in Zappa's case, so to speak, feet of mephitic slime. Yes, Stink-Foot does come to mind. Anyway, it gave me no pleasure at all to read about his caveman attitude towards women (a trait, incredibly, shared by his wife Gail), his cavalier treatment of band members; his general misanthropy, and utter hypocrisy in nearly all aspects of his life. The fact that he was also a control freak seems, by comparison, only a minor addition to this litany of failure.

But most damning of all was the way he reared his children. They were allowed do exactly as they liked: Their totally inappropriate - but, for them, perfectly normal - behaviour at school, for instance, would be hilarious if it wasn't so shocking. They watched porn and horror films with both parents (who, incidentally, seldom communicated unless it was about business) and, when they became teenagers, Gail insisted that they shower with any overnight guests to save water. Yes, that is hard to believe. The only rule in a house - where inflatable sex devices and pornographic cartoons lay casually strewn about - seemed to be Thou shalt not bother daddy when he's working.

His cruelly-christened daughter ("If it's a boy call him Motorhead. If it's a girl call her Moon Unit," Zappa blithely instructed his heavily pregnant wife as he leaves for London with another woman) tells of how her father's obscene lyrics "made her shy, almost repressed about my own anatomy" and, in another heartbreaking incident, she begs for some sort of normal relationship with him. And the result of her pleading? Valley Girl, one of his most successful records. I hope the Zappa children turned out safe and healthy, but the more I read, the more I couldn't get Philip Larkin's line out of of my head: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad..."

Barry Miles is a reputable biographer who knew Zappa very well, but that doesn't, of course, mean that he might not have a lorryload of axes to grind. You shouldn't, of course, believe everything you read, but if you like Frank Zappa's music, maybe you should avoid this book. As depicted here, he was a human being with very few redeeming qualities. Even his hostility towards drugs - which would surely be to the average parent's credit - comes across as just another of his wilful perversions.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Most Battered Bridge in Ireland

In August 2006, Iarnród Éireann (Irish Rail) announced that, over the previous five years, more than 720 railway bridges had been hit and damaged by lorries, at a cost of €25.5 million to the company. I was intrigued to learn that the bridge I grew up beside merited the invidious title of The Most Battered Bridge in Ireland, 2005. This unfortunate edifice - under which I walk a few times each day - suffered a total of 22 direct hits. And in fourth place, with 8 hits, in the Top Five of Stricken Structures? The bridge over the Mountrath Road. Clearly, Portlaoise is not the place to be if you're a bridge. On a serious note, it seems that, despite all the signs and warnings, some drivers, in charge of forty-tonne battering rams (which I have seen being forced under the bridge and nonchalantly driven off), are either illiterate or totally heedless of the safety of others.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Bill Bryson

Hanging around Liverpool airport, I was stuck for something to read so I bought The Lost Continent. The blurb gave the impression that it would be light and amusing, exactly the sort of reading you want while waiting for a plane. It describes Bryson's 14,000 mile car journey through small-town America and, sure enough, it did turn out to be light and amusing - even, on occasion, funny enough to make me laugh aloud - and, frequently, I found myself nodding my head in agreement (especially at his endorsement of a long-held opinion/prejudice of my own: "Can there anywhere be a breed of people more irritating and imbecilic than disc jockeys?").

One unexpected feature was his seemingly relentless obsession with fat people. He rarely loses a chance to regale us with derogatory details ("... a fat young woman with a pair of ill-kempt children moaning in a loud voice about her financial problems...", and, nine pages later, "... a fat woman asleep in the front passenger seat, her mouth hugely agape."), so much so that I ended up wondering what his problem was. He's not exactly sylph-like himself.

Last night I happened to see a South Bank Show profile and there it was again, this childish glee in poking fun at those bigger than himself. Also present was the unmistakable whiff of smugness. Not to mention hypocrisy. He was constantly bemoaning the fact that so many residents were deserting the centres of small cities like his native Des Moines, yet he chooses to live in England.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Beatle Week

We're just home from Beatle Week in Liverpool, an event I would recommend to anyone with any love for my favourite band. It was our first visit and while we were prepared for wall-to-wall Beatles music from all sorts of tribute bands, and meeting all sorts of fans, what we didn't expect was how utterly moving the week would be; how beautiful the city would be; that there'd be a fire in the hotel....

The various venues were crawling with Beatles of every species known to music: Hamburg Beatles, Cavern Beatles, Help Beatles, Sergeant Pepper Beatles, Abbey Road Beatles, Post-Beatle Beatles, all decked out in the appropriate finery. Normally, I am cynical about tribute bands (To be frank, I think they are all parasites living off the work of others) but, seeing them in some sort of context, in their natural habitat, so to speak, I was surprised to find my antipathy suspended. I suddenly saw them doing what they do, not out of creative bankruptcy or lazy plagiarism, but out of sheer love of the music (someone told us that none of the bands - apart from those appearing at the Liverpool Empire - received any payment. Could this be true?) and, in the process, bringing great live Beatles music to those who, like us, had never seen the band live. You could, argue, of course, that such people would be better off listening to the original albums, but it was obvious that they'd already done that, as almost everyone at every performance, irrespective of native language, sang along with every word of every song. Every song I heard reminded me yet again of what a brilliant band the Beatles were and more than once I felt that shiver up the spine.

The best bands we heard were Beetle One, four young lads from Brazil whose enthusiasm was matched by a musicianship that raised the roof of the Adelphi Hotel. I didn't even have to close my eyes to be back in 1963. We also liked The Bootleg Beatles and, from the Czech Republic, a band called Boom (complete with brass, choir and strings) whose sheer joy to be playing Beatles songs in Liverpool overcame their nerves and endeared them to us all.

Throughout the week there was a great sense of esprit de corps among fans who ranged from recent converts through eagle-eyed collectors, to manic obsessives. I know it's sentimental, very flowers in your hair, man, but it was a lovely feeling to see complete strangers, who hadn't a word of each other's language, smile in recognition of their common bond, great timeless music....

Even away from the music, there were many magical moments: Passing that shelter in the middle of the roundabout; standing at the gate of Strawberry Field (sic); meeting some of the original Quarrymen, seeing the actual instruments they played; staring at the Beatles childhood homes all brought lumps to my throat. The Magical Mystery Tour was great but it's a pity that the organisers, the National Trust (who own Lennon and McCartney's childhood homes) and the company that runs the outstanding Beatles Story at Albert Dock, don't put their heads together and come up with an integrated package. On this note, if you're thinking of attending Beatle Week, be aware that you must book separately for The Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles Story and entry to the houses. Book well in advance for the latter as, quite understandably, only a dozen or so visitors can be accommodated at a time.

Someone told us that, after London, Liverpool has the most listed buildings in England. We were overwhelmed by the variety and beauty of the arcthitecture: If, like me, you had the idea in your head that Liverpool was a dour, industrialised place, your eyes will definitely be opened. If you see nothing else, make a beeline for the two cathedrals. Behind the Anglican one you'll also find St James' Garden, an oasis of peace and quiet and, for the interior lighting alone, make sure you visit the nearby Catholic cathedral which rejoices in the local name of Paddy's Wigwam. If you don't know it, find it on-line and you'll understand the brilliance of that soubriquet.

Maybe we were just lucky, but the Liverpudlians we met went out of their way to be helpful and extend the sort of Cead Mile Failte we're supposed to have a monopoly on in Ireland. The only downside to our week was the Indian restaurant whose food was great but whose surly, overworked staff seemed surprised that we should enquire why each course - including coffee - took half-an-hour to arrive. I am not exaggerating. Maybe we should have booked the meal before we left Ireland at all.

Finally, two surreal scenes: When fire broke out in the hotel, we were all evacuated. Picture us, standing outside in the middle of the night, residents and miscellaneous local revellers, accompanied by two Russian accordionist, singing Beatles songs in the rain... some wit at the back shouting for 'Burning Down the House' and 'Light My Fire'. On another occasion, at eight o'clock in the morning, I blinked in disbelief as six Beatles - in full moptop regalia - approached along the hotel corridor....

On returning home, incidentally, I found that my tolerance for tribute bands was indeed ephemeral. But that's another story....