In Earthbound, Paul Morley takes us down the Tube for a journey on the Bakerloo line, and ends up talking about a John Peel session by Can. ‘Can music remembered music from the future that had not happened yet: by remembering it, as though it was an ordinary thing to remember the future, they made it happen.’
There’s plenty on the experience of travelling underneath the city too, as well as working for the NME; possessing one of the first Sony Walkmans in London; and interviewing Mick Jagger and ‘punkishly, pompously telling [him] off for being too old, at thirty-seven, to be singing pop’.
The comparisons of Brian Eno’s music with Harry Beck’s London Underground map, then of Googling and using the Tube, are typically bravura Paul Morley, not so much spotting patterns as forcing the cultural world to bend itself to his vision of it.
If Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City felt at times like too much of that vision for an ever so slightly less pop-obsessed reader to cope with, then Earthbound’s focus and (relatively) contained and constrained subject matter make it an always engaging read.
Tim Hopkins of The Half Pint Press has been kind enough to print up and publish ‘Letterpress [n]’, one of my Missing letters stories. Having faced down the many challenges involved in realising his boxed version of The book of disquiet, typically Tim gave himself a fresh conundrum to solve, one requiring some serious letterpress jiggery-pokery in order to achieve the finished result:
You can find further details and photos here. If you’re interested in getting hold of a copy, let me know via A wild slim alien’s First contact page, and I’ll pass on the relevant information just as soon as I have it from Tim.
To celebrate its appearance in print, and also The Half Pint Press publication of Peter Miller’s short story ‘Dusty Springfield’, a launch party is being held at the bookartbookshop on Thursday 12th October 2017. Do come along if you’re in London, as it will be a chance – rare as hen’s teeth – to hear me read…
By the way, you can also find me on Twitter here: @awildslimalien
Perhaps you won’t actually know his name, but if you’ve any interest in the jazz, soul, pop, folk, blues or Brazilian music of the 1960s and 70s, then you will almost certainly have heard either the songs or the piano playing of Bobby Scott. Take ‘A taste of honey’, recorded by the Beatles for their first LP – that’s one of Bobby’s. ‘He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother’, another.
Following on from his previous book, A moment worth waiting for, which focussed on the early 1980s and took the equally adventurous Vic Godard as its touchstone, here Kevin Pearce traces an insightful and alternative path through the music of the two previous decades – alternative in the sense that Bobby Scott and many of the singers and musicians with whom he worked have not been anything like as celebrated as they deserve to be.
Bobby Scott’s approach was genre-blind if not genre-busting, illustrative of the plurality, interconnectedness, and cross-pollinating tendencies of a certain type of musical adventurer. He was, in the best sense of the word, a mastermind, but one who never lost sight of the gifts which individual singers possessed.
This was a man who packed a lot of living into too short a life. From precocious and energetic youth to grey-bearded patrician, Bobby composed, arranged, conducted, produced, sang, and played on countless sets of music, working with an amazing cast of fellow musicians and singers, including Bobby Darin, Jackie Paris, Chet Baker, Roland Kirk, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin, Timi Yuro, Nana Mouskouri, Esther Ofarim, Catherine Howe, Luiz Bonfá, Eumir Deodato, Marvin Gaye, and Dionne Warwick – and just as many less well-known performers, each treated by the writer on the merits of the work they left behind rather than plaudits gathered along the way.
It’s a journey which You know my name maps in meticulous detail and with great affection, building a portrait of a gifted, fascinating, and generous man, as well as a rich and enlightening history of the music of the times. Among others, Astrud Gilberto, Stan Getz, Gary McFarland and Lalo Schifrin all also feature prominently in the story as it diverges from its central character to record the influential effect that Brazilian bossa nova had on music in the United States from the early 1960s onwards.
The book becomes an evocation of the depth, breadth and staying power of the great American and Brazilian songbooks, and in so doing, an extended treatise on the art of singing. Bobby Scott – himself a vocalist of raw emotional power – is rightfully rescued from the cracks in history down which he has fallen, and along with him, dozens of fine singers and musicians worthy of far greater attention than they received at the time.
My friend Kevin Pearce has just published A moment worth waiting for as an e-book. It has no subtitle, very possibly because there is no way you could even begin to sum up the book’s contents in half a dozen or so words. But perhaps if you did try, it might read: a young man’s peregrinations through the music of the early 1980s. Except that the young man in question doesn’t confine himself to the 1980s, instead time-travelling here, there and everywhere as he traces lineages back as far as Music Hall and anticipates futures yet to happen. Beginning with Vic Godard, ending with easy listening pianist Peter Skellern (whom Vic used to put ‘on his battered bone-armed record player’), and taking in along the way the ZE, Postcard, Rough Trade, Y and On-U Sound record labels, as well as any number of characters on, around and beyond those labels, it’s as much the mapping of the fruits of an individual voyage of discovery as a detailed account of how that individual made those discoveries – at times through a process of gradual absorption, more often by instinctively and gleefully seizing upon leads from music journalists, as well as the kind of chance encounters or intuitive leaps of faith which result from having a curious mind and a relentlessly hungry pair of ears. In this respect it reminds me of Rachel Cohen’s wonderful book A chance meeting: intertwined lives of American writers and artists, which espoused a similar interest in unearthing what you might call cultural interconnectedness in the pre-internet age.
It’s also very much the journey and work of a lifetime. The depth of the research – and / or recall – is amazing; key to the book is the contemporary music criticism upon which Kevin draws, so obviously influential in terms of his developing taste. But those well-remembered moments of discovery are merely the beginning, and it’s the lifetime of subsequent listening and exploration which adds lightly disguised layers of retrospective understanding to each instance of musical epiphany.
With a cast of thousands and a no limits approach to the genres of music covered, even knowledgeable readers are likely to feel somewhat bewildered from time to time – perhaps there are too many leads, too many clues for any one reader to follow up on – but the tone of the writing remains engaging, generous and sure-footed. The transitions backwards and forwards in time are likewise handled with ease, and the effect of the whole is to do what any great writing about music should – indeed, what those music journalists of the early 1980s did for Kevin himself – which is to make the reader wish to listen again with freshly syringed ears to the records they know, and make haste to track down those that have so far eluded them. I came away with a long, long list of those.
Anyone with an interest in not just independent music of the 1980s, but the entire history of popular music, will learn something from – and find fascination in – every chapter of Kevin’s book. Moments and words worth waiting for, indeed.
Where once I might have chosen Paul Handyside’s ‘Hip hip’ as my favourite Hurrah! 45, now it’s his ‘Gloria’ which has greater emotional sway. ‘Hip hip’ is necessarily celebratory, excitable and exciting, the adrenaline rush of poetic youth, but it’s also tinged with nostalgia and melancholy, for the many memories it conjures, for the distance which has opened up within me between the man I am now and the boy I was then. Perhaps inevitably at this distance, the lyrics read as and sound somewhat adolescent. And that’s fine, because if ever songs caught the rush of feeling that being young involves, the confusion and exaltation and cloud nine highs and dismal pressure drop lows, the happiness shot through with sadness and the sadness shot through with a refusal to be beaten, then it was the early songs of Handyside and Taffy Hughes, the Geordie Lennon and McCartney.
‘Gloria’, with its Cyrano de Bergerac gallantry and transposition of a serenading or star-crossed lovers balcony scene to twentieth century Newcastle, is perhaps no exception, but it seems tempered by both a feeling of duende and a dreamlike quality; the dream that starts when you want it to. While the yearning edge of Handyside’s voice filled so many of his songs with a sense of melancholy and things not quite working out as he might have hoped and planned, here he manages to convey a sense of certainty and destiny that pervades waking and sleeping, night and day.
It doesn’t hurt that musically, it’s a classic-sounding song which in my mind twines about Procol Harum’s ‘A whiter shade of pale’ like ivy or wisteria, the Hammond organ line of which was itself famously lifted from Bach. ‘A whiter shade of pale’ in turn makes me think of the Clientele’s ‘Isn’t life strange?’, and how’s that for a trio of timeless songs?
‘Trust in me, things I tell you…’ Hurrah! were a group of infinite importance to a small, select number of people; folk took the trouble to testify to this when I wrote about the group over at Backed with. Implored to do so by the collective persuasion of both Hungry beat and Are you scared to get happy? fanzines (the latter named after the rousing challenge in the chorus of ‘Hip hip’), I bought a copy of Boxed: long-shot pomes from broke players, which collected together Hurrah!’s early singles for Kitchenware, including ‘Gloria’. The title was borrowed from Charles Bukowski, whose novel Factotum I would have read around the same time, following up every suggested lead. Back then I never saw the delightfully silly and presumably somewhat satirical video for ‘Gloria’ featuring a dippy New Romantic-looking girl dancing (surely not the Gloria in question?) and bass player David Porthouse cross-dressing (now, if he were the Gloria in question, that would certainly give the lyrics some swing); all of which doesn’t quite undermine Handyside’s earnestness nor the enduringly affecting nature of the song.
Image of Longshot pomes for broke players via bukowski.net.
Dear reader, my Christmas gift to you is this – Hidden treasure: the National Library of Medicine – a fabulous, beautifully illustrated and freely available ebook detailing some of the riches in the collection of the National Library of Medicine in the US, and emanating from the point at which personal interests and my working life collide.
To give you a flavour, among my favourite of the revealed treasures are the Langenburg Manuscript (a 16th century compilation of texts about the health and maintenance of horses), nurse postcards and uniform photograph collections, White’s physiological manikin, Marvels of things created and miraculous aspects of existing things (a 13th century Islamic cosmography), examples of hirsutism from the 1876 edition of the Atlas of skin diseases, Theodosius Purland’s mesmerism scrapbooks, the Numskulls-like wonder of The wonder in us (popular science from 1920s Germany), Chinese public health slides, St. Elizabeths magic lantern slide collection, a 17th and 18th century book of receipts for remedies, and covers and pages from Scope magazine. Plus lots of other weird, wonderful and grotesque medical stuff, and accompanying each item, short essays by scholars, artists, collectors, journalists, or physicians. It’s not an entirely scientific trawl through the history of medicine, but it illuminates a creative energy from across the centuries in which medical science is married to art.
It’s an irony of course that this is an ebook celebrating hard copy words and pictures in all their varied and magnificent forms; books you’d really like to get your (white gloved) hands on. But it is also itself available in hard copy, if a preference for the heft of a book in your hand and the feel of pages as you turn them beats the cost involved. Or you are stuck for a last minute idea for a Christmas present. It’s the kind of book I’d like to receive myself, and I feel somewhat frustrated that among those to whom I routinely give presents, I can’t quite imagine who I’d aim it at. The same goes for the equally enticing Book of barely imagined beings: a 21st century bestiary. But at least I can draw both books to your attention.
Merry Christmas to all my regulars, and to anyone stumbling into the Pantry for the first time.
I’ve just finished reading a collection of short stories by Eric Bosse called Magnificent mistakes. The stories are indeed magnificent in depicting how strange we all are, inside and out. Characters’ lives slip out of their control as they try and fail to communicate and come to terms with their significant others, but in the end no-one dies (or almost no-one). The stories are lean and funny and perfectly poised between tenderness and something much more steely-eyed. Some are short short fictions, but have in them as much detail as the best paintings by miniaturists. None of the stories tell you what to think, and many take you places you may not have been, even as they give accounts of the relationships we all have, with lovers and mothers and fathers and children. Oh, and rubber plants.
‘Invisible world’ and ‘The fractured museum of us’ are great examples of this, succinct and episodic scenes from life that convey in a few brief pages the stretches of landscape you’d expect from a novel. Turning on two strangers encountering each other in near Arctic wilderness, ‘The end of Norway’ is an unnerving read, as is ‘Our lady of the Rockies’. Like so many of the stories in the collection, they steer a fine line between treading where you expect them to and veering off in directions you don’t.
If you do make your way to this excellent collection, don’t be put off by the first story in it. ‘The dog-faced boy’ seemed to me too consciously fantastical, Dadaist even, and didn’t progress and conclude with quite the same feeling of satisfaction as the rest. But that’s one misfire or lapse of judgment out of nineteen, and when worlds other than your own are as finely rendered as these are, they’re worth going that extra mile for.
Italo Calvino’s novel Baron in the trees (1957) is a picaresque affair in comparison with the beautiful metaphysics of his later work. The Baron is Cosimo, who as a boy of twelve argues with his father over the eating of a plate of snails, and heads up a holm-oak.
Cosimo climbed up to the fork of a big branch where he could settle comfortably and sat himself down there, his legs dangling, his arms crossed with hands tucked under his elbows, his head buried in his shoulders, his tricorne hat tilted over his forehead.
Our father leant out of the window-sill. ‘When you’re tired of being up there, you’ll change your ideas!’ he shouted.
‘I’ll never change my ideas,’ exclaimed my brother from the branch.
‘You’ll see as soon as you come down!’
‘Then I’ll never come down again!’ And he kept his word.
Cosimo starts to map out the rules of his refusal to return to the ground that same day, in conversation with Viola, the capricious little girl in the garden next door. Many pages and years pass before she finally ventures into the hollow of a nut-tree to be with him.
It’s unsurprisingly a great novel about trees, though in a less explicit way than Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, in which a man named Holland promises his daughter’s hand to the suitor who can correctly name all of the hundreds of species of eucalyptus tree that he has planted on his land. But Baron in the trees also manages to combine the elegiac spirit of Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa’s contemporaneously published The leopard with the comic aspects of the adventures of Casanova. And it makes you yearn a little for the age when England was covered in trees rather than fields, roads and buildings, and you might have chosen to swing through its forests from one county to another, an arboreal aristocrat and, like Cosimo, a proponent of a Project for the Constitution of an Ideal State in the Trees.
I was saddened to read of the early death of Sean Body while researching the latest entry in the Backed with annals. Reading Sean’s book Wish the World Away: Mark Eitzel and the American Music Club was – I thought – the first time I had come across him, but I hadn’t realised that he was the co-founder of both the Helter Skelter publishing concern and the bookshop of the same name in London, in which I had happily browsed and bought on several occasions, even attending the odd book launch there.
I never met Sean but I’ve got a sense of him through reading his book about Eitzel, and like to think we’d have rubbed along fine if we’d ever struck up conversation in the Angel, the pub that was nearest Helter Skelter.
At the end of Wish the world away Sean gives a personal selection of the best less well known American Music Club songs, and a song called ‘Mrs Wright’ is number one. A Mark Eitzel home demo from the time between California and Everclear, it obviously meant a lot to Sean, and in his memory, it deserves a wider audience. This is what he wrote about it:
It is often easy to exaggerate the brilliance of unreleased songs, because they have a mystique missing from released material. Also, they are judged against much weaker yardsticks than an artist’s best released work, set against which they might often be found wanting. It would be difficult to sustain an argument that ‘Mrs Wright’ in its demo-ed version is a better piece of work than finished Eitzel tracks such as ‘Western sky’ or ‘Blue and grey shirt’. Nonetheless, it is somehow strangely more compelling than many of his better-known songs. The introduction lasts only four bars, before Eitzel begins singing, and the performance itself is less than two minutes. … When the final passage turns out only as a half-verse, the effect is startling. What we are left with is a mystical, beautiful fragment – the shadow of a ghost or a fading dream. Because of the technological and commercial processes involved in making a record, there is often very little mystery in pop, but this home recording of ‘Mrs Wright’ remains inscrutable, undocumented and frozen in time – untainted by either artistic or commercial compromise. … It would be difficult to imagine this fragile performance worked into a full band arrangement, without taking something more pure away. And in this, the song is representative of some of Eitzel’s fundamental problems in bringing his music to a wider audience, both in terms of the double-edged sword of musical collaboration, and with regard to commercial considerations. Nonetheless, with ‘Mrs Wright’ Mark Eitzel realised his quest to make timeless, beautiful music. In terms of his artistic achievement alone, it may not really matter that the song was never released. In AS Byatt’s novel Posession, the narrator comments: ‘There are things which happen and leave no discernable trace, are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been.
Robert Forster’s collected music writings 2005-09, The 10 rules of rock and roll has found its way here from Australia. The piece which gives the book its title is appropriately succinct, covering less than a page. My favourite of the ten are:
o The second-last song on every album is the weakest.
o Great bands tend to look alike.
o The guitarist who changes guitars on stage after every third number is showing you his guitar collection.
o The three-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression.
Reading this piece and the rest of Robert’s writings (together with having been at this game myself in some form or fashion for over twenty years) suggested the following 10 rules of rock and roll criticism.
1. Three facts and a gag.
My friend Mark Morris once told me that this was Steve Lamacq’s rule for reviewing an album or a gig. It’s a method that underpins Robert Forster’s criticism, only in a rather more refined and artful sense than you suspect Lammo was after from his NME freelancers. Robert takes his duties seriously, gives you the salient facts, and has the same dry humour in print as he does when crafting lyrics.
2. Tell the good from the bad.
Throughout this collection Robert demarcates between the good songs on a record and the fillers or missteps. He’s generous with his praise and sharp with his criticism.
3. Make the reader want to hear the music.
The obvious one. What is it that makes this a great or a great but flawed record? Put across its particularities and peculiarities; what it does both for you personally and what it might therefore do for anyone that goes out of their way to listen to it. There are at least half a dozen records I would never have sought out that I want to listen to as a result of reading Robert’s pieces about them: Sarah Blasko’s As day follows night, Espers’ II, Beth Orton’s Comfort of strangers, Paul Kelly’s Songs from the south, Neil Diamond’s 12 songs, and Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson’s Rattlin’ bones.
4. Don’t get so excited that you lose all sense of measure; equally don’t be so measured that you lose all sense of excitement.
It’s a difficult balance which Robert almost always gets tightrope-wire perfect. Bloggers are prone to the former; journalists the latter.
5. Bring the knowledge you have to bear.
In Robert’s case this means a thorough understanding of the value of production and the way songs are arranged and rendered; and what might be thought an old-fashioned – or a recording artist’s – concern for the balance of an album, its rightness as a set (Cat Power’s The greatest gets this wrong in Robert’s eyes, despite the great songs it contains). This gives his criticism a revealing edge. He is also honest about what he doesn’t know, a rare trait among critics.
6. Don’t be a snob (or a knob, for that matter).
Robert writes with openness and fondness for Australian rock and pop music, and in so doing gives the measure and depth of it on terms that I’d not previously encountered. There are many ways to be snobbish (or knobbish) about music; disdaining your own is one of them. As is pooh-poohing the efforts of allegedly less fertile pop musical cultures.
7. Don’t ignore the lyrics.
That means pointing out their infelicities as much as their wonders. As a lyricist himself, Robert treats the words with a seriousness that isn’t common among music critics.
8. Don’t give way to sentiment.
A great album doesn’t make the next great. A hero can develop feet of clay.
9. Don’t let yourself be bought, whatever the currency offered.
This is what damages music and music criticism most.
10. Surprise the reader, at least every now and again.
It’s the pieces about artists whose records you suspect the reviewer would not ordinarily have gone out of his or her way to listen to that are often most revealing, both about the critic and the artist. So, like Robert, challenge yourself, and your readership.
Robin has gone into overdrive on his new blog, Include me out. It’s great to be able to read his writing again and catch up on what he’s thinking. As well as highly refined and more than occasionally provocative takes on music and film, he’s been posting all sorts of imagery, including some much loved covers from his book collection. This and our recent Fire Raisers escapade have prompted me to post one of my favourite covers:
More than a little ragged round the edges – it was a 1980s Holloway Road second-hand bookshop find – but William Belcher’s design is very possibly one of the earliest examples (1964) of a book or magazine with two front covers and right-way round and upside down text meeting in the middle. I’m sure there’s a technical term for that in graphic design.
Dust falls on Eugene Schlumburger / Toddler on the run was Shena Mackay’s first book, published when she was just nineteen. It’s far from the vivid, synaesthetic grace of her best work, but it contains flashes of the brilliance that was to come:
Abigail broke loose from the encircling arms and began sliding and spiralling down the hill until all Eugene could see in the moonlight was her red hair spinning into the white eternity. He started to run but his legs were heavy with cold and snowflakes melted in his eyes blinding him. He ran, heavy and lost, his hard feet pounding the slithering ground. Then he tripped on a lump of ice and fell, hitting his face on the kerb. The sky flashed round his head and he lay there for a minute, his cut face bleeding into the snow, and desolation in his heart feeling he had lost her forever. He raised his weak legs and tried to walk, but his steps degenerated into a slide. As he cruised unsteadily round the corner, he saw himself as she would in a second – ‘I am a man of thirty sliding in the snow with blood on my face.’
She stood at the bus stop, her hair spiked with snowflakes, waiting for him. She wiped his face with her hair because she had no handkerchief. As the bus drew away a street lamp lit the face of a battered mole.
You won’t be surprised to hear that it ends badly for Eugene.
There are two presents I would like for Christmas. The first is a McLennan Monkees t-shirt. The second is a copy of Robert Forster’s book, The 10 rules of rock and roll, which collects together the music criticism previously discussed here. There’s a new piece in the book called ‘The 10 rules’. That I can’t wait to read – the 10 rules in the opinion of the man who wrote ‘Rock’n’roll friend’.
In other Go-Betweens news, brought to us by the ever dependable Go-Betweens.net, the group are having a bridge named after them in their home town of Brisbane. It’s called the Go Between Bridge. Not the Go-Betweens Bridge plural, but Go Between singular. More of a referencing bridge than one named explicitly after them, I suppose.
This post is also an excuse to post the cover of one of my most cherished CDs. The Go-Betweens, Robert Foster, Grant Mc Lennan & me was given away as a cover-mount CD with French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles in 1991, and comprises six songs by the group, and three each from Grant and Robert’s first solo LPs. It doesn’t have anything a Go-Betweens nut wouldn’t have these days but at the time the remixed, alternate version of ‘Head full of steam’ was notable for the extra lines that Robert sings: ‘Steam may rise, steam may dare / Can I come to your place, and can I wash your hair?’
And it would be a dereliction of duty not to point you in the direction of a later Go-Betweens CD for Les Inrocks, which gave the French-speaking world a chance to hear acoustic demos for 16 Lovers Lane. These didn’t make it onto the enhanced version of the album released by Lo-Max Records in 2004, so I’m guessing that if you’re a fan, you’ll want to head down under and visit our friends at That striped sunlight sound.
These two pages from Pantry For The World are the continuation of the piece comparing and contrasting Momus and McCarthy (which began here), with dollops of Billy Childish, Wings of desire, Jeanette Winterson and Malcolm Lowry thrown in for good measure. Laying my text over an interview with Nick Currie from French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles, this is just about the best laid-out page I ever pasted together. I love the photo of McCarthy, obviously taken around the time they were releasing ‘Get a knife between your teeth’.
But my verdict on The enraged will inherit the earth was extremely harsh – ‘Sitar-y guitar sounds and meek mediocrity’! It’s a much better album than this suggests, and as one of only three McCarthy made, it has to be cherished, though it’s true it’s not quite at the level of their first and third. But it contains some of Malcolm Eden’s most striking lyrics (‘What our boys are fighting for’ neatly aligns soldiering and football hooliganism) and some of his most devastating, unsettling and arch attacks on the liberal left (‘I’m not a patriot but’ skewering those who lent their support for central American ‘freedom fighters’ while simultaneously withholding it from the ‘terrorists’ ‘not far away’ from Britain). And Tim Gane’s melodies are as lovely in essence as Laetitia Sadier would make them on Banking, violence and the inner life today and later with Stereolab.
To continue the compare and contrast theme here in the 21st century, let’s pair one of those lovely Gane melodies in the form of ‘An address to the better off’ with Momus’ Stock, Aitken & Waterman parody ‘Lifestyles of the rich and famous’ from his Don’t stop the night LP. Plus the video of ‘Keep an open mind or else’ for its rarity value.
The second page has Momus’ explanation of who Momus was. En français.
Though he tried, Wim Wenders could never top Wings of desire. Never mind the wonderful German actors – Nick Cave! And Peter Falk! In the same movie!
- McCarthy – An address to the better off
- Momus – Lifestyles of the rich and famous (via UbuWeb Sound)
- McCarthy – Keep an open mind or else
We are the Clientele, and we are on top form, if the lead-off track from Bonfires on the heath is anything to go by. For ‘I wonder who we are’, they have infused the lightness and deliberately banal joy of a Tropicália-era Caetano Veloso song with their hallmark shot of estrangement. You can download ‘I wonder who we are’ here or here (where you’ll also see the album’s artwork). Bonfires is due out in October on Merge, just in time for us in the UK to use it as the backdrop to our celebrations of Guy Fawkes’ honest intentions.
‘Share the night’ from That night, a forest grew reappears on Bonfires on the heath, which allows me to mention that I think I’ve chanced upon the source of that EP’s title – the children’s book Where the wild things are by Maurice Sendak (1963):
That night in Max’s room a forest grew
and grew until his ceiling hung with vines
and the walls became the world all around
‘People are psychedelic to each other, under certain ideal conditions.’
I’d been in two minds about reading Jonathan Lethem’s You don’t love me yet. Mixed reviews suggested a drop in standard from The fortress of solitude; that the subject matter was music didn’t help – having spent so much time with pop groups (close up and at one remove), I wasn’t sure that I could cope with a fictional account. (See also: Toby Litt’s I play the drums in a band called Okay.) Add to this the fact that the British paperback cover is a shocker, a Battenberg chick-lit confection that’s particularly depressing coming after the fabulous and perfectly judged covers for The fortress of solitude and Men and cartoons, and it looked like I’d be waiting until Lethem’s next book to resume our acquaintance.
But then last year I came across the Bye Bye Blackbirds, and their wonderful, harmony-drenched recording of ‘Monster eyes’, a song they construed out of the few lyrical fragments relayed by Lethem in You don’t love me yet. As I discovered on reading the novel, in impersonating a fictional group, the Blackbirds had added another layer of appropriation on top of the story.
Certainly You don’t love me yet is much lighter than The fortress of solitude, Motherless Brooklyn or As she crawled across the table – but it’s precisely the heaviness of those books, their concentrated force, which might allow a reader to let Lethem to have some fun. The result is a colour-saturated but not inaccurate picture of how a group’s music comes together. It helps that the novel is set in the underbelly of LA – from this distance, as mysterious a place in its way as the celebrity topside is over-exposed. It’s not perfect – aspects of the story are not as satisfactorily fleshed-out as all has been in previous works, and the novel fizzles out in the way that groups often do, but it makes a bold attempt to get under the skin of a musician, giving us the feel of what it might be like to play the bass in a band which comes to be called Monster Eyes.
You don’t love me yet is in no way overpowered by musical nods obscure or otherwise, but a Flying Nun follower can’t help smiling at an explicit reference to the Verlaines when the question of band names used as song titles is discussed. My fondness for minutiae encouraged, I begin to wonder whether Lucinda, who leads the drive of the narrative, is so called for the A Certain Ratio song of that name. And might the novel’s depressed kangaroo be a salute to mid-eighties jazz-punk antagonists Big Flame, who featured one splayed on the cover of their first single, and thereafter always adorned their sleeves with a large marsupial? It would seem unlikely, but I can’t help hoping that Lethem has both Sextet and Rigour on his shelves.
The Blackbirds rustled up ‘Monster eyes’ for a slot supporting Jonathan Lethem reading in Berkeley, which set me wondering whether other groups in other cities brought their versions of the song to life when he read in them. Are there in fact a whole host of songs called ‘Monster eyes’ out there now? Not a whole host, but at least three or four; Lethem promotes such efforts via his ‘Promiscuous materials’ project. Eventually – possibly after he is dead – a group may take it all one stage further, decide to call themselves Monster Eyes, and construct their set out of the song titles that Lethem gives in the novel.
What I couldn’t work out from my rudimentary research is whether the same trick was also worked with The fortress of solitude, in which a part of the book is given over to a liner note account of the career of Barrett Rude Jr. and the Distinctions. Much harder to pull off, I suspect, but has anyone brought the fiction of their big hit ‘Bothered blue’ to life?