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Outsider career opportunities?

Writing about Shane MacGowan  in the last blog (my sincere apologies for misspelling his name on several occasions) got me thinking a bit further about the notion of ‘outsiders’, a notion which first gained currency in the immediate post-war period  (1945-) and was a marker for a couple of generations of artists, musicians and scene-makers generally. After the success of Colin Wilson’s The Outsider in 1956, it was a cachet to achieve ‘outsider status’. Just look at The Rolling Stones, who carved a career from urinating in a public place, and who now feature a knight of the realm on lead vocals. To be ‘out’, there has surely to be an ‘in’ - the standard OED definition states that the outsider can be “an uninitiated person,layman, person without special knowledge, not fit to mix with good society…thought to have no chance in a race or competition”. What is it about modern society that have made such qualities both desirable and admirable in some quarters?  In today’s Trump culture, such a description sounds like that of a ‘loser’, a favourite put-down of Derogatory Donald.

Shane M. is an objective correlative of the paradoxes of this terminology - a supposed gifted poet who has ‘systematically deranged his senses’ (to use a get-out clause invented by the 16-year old Arthur Rimbaud in 1871, to give some sort of gravitas to his laudanum and absinthe excesses, and which consequently gave several future generations of wasters a handy excuse for getting off their tits - ‘systematically’, naturellement). Similarly, the expression ‘drug experimentation’ may be appropriate when referring to Albert Hoffman, but is far less convincing when fans/hangers-on of William Burroughs or Keith Richards try to rationalise their excesses. Part of he 60s and 70s generations tried to make taking drugs out to be a noble, self-negating attempt to ‘explore inner space’, which maybe it was in some cases, but ironically these particular ‘sense derangements’ soon became a sort of norm, once the commercial counterculture got involved, and one more outsider activity had its teeth extracted.

There are some who feel that there are still outsiders operating at the edges (the ‘outsides’?)  of rock music, even today - Stephen Stapleton (Nurse With Wound) and Jandek (not my cup of tea at all), for example, and reading an article in this month’s Wire (February 2018) on the Ceramic Hobs group (who were previously off my radar) demonstrates that the notion is still current, in this instance with regard to the ‘outsider status’ of the mentally ill.  I’m probably a tad defensive here, as I was for many years a mental health nurse or ‘oppressor’ to use a bit of jargon from ‘’psychiatric survivor’-speak.  It still troubles me, even five years after retirement, when I read about Mad Pride, not that such organisations exist (they provide a community often, for people that don’t belong to any), but because they can set up unhelpful (and unwinnable) inescapable basic assumptions of a fundamental conflict between service users and the supposed patiarchy, an updated development of the military-industrial complex, and still featuring the usual father-figure bogeymen. By setting up an ‘enemy’, much psychic energy is frittered away by individuals who are ‘outside’ because they can’t help it, rather than it being part of a career plan. The following is all too typical of the level of debate - “…Recovery In The Bin, a user-led group who see the recovery model are wholly inadequate when people are subject to the crushing pressures of late stage capitalism”. Once SWP language starts being spouted, you know that you are on the road to nowhere, and, more importantly, vague rhetoric starts to replace practical and emotional assistance, which most service users need far more than dialectical materialism.

As I need to end this, I will sign off with the Ceramic Hobs’s Stephen Morris, who seems to want his psychotic cake and to eat it: “..I don’t necessarily think you have to be unstable to be creative but a look at the lives of writers, artists and musicians shows that most of us clearly aren’t quite the full shilling”. This comment really needs a blog to itself, but basically it’s a more right-on update of “you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps”. Wild Man Fischer is the patron saint of this particular branch of the Outsider Artist Club, rather than Nick Drake Brian Wilson.

The Cringing Cult of Celebrity

It didn’t avoid scrutiny that last month (on Xmas Day itself in actual fact) contained the sixtieth birthday of Shane McGowan (SM) is this the real (Fake News?). Now, given that, as far as I can see McGowan hasn’t written a decent song since 1987, it is worth pondering for a moment or two, as to how/why this anniversary was worth an article n The Guardian, among other news sources.

It is most instructive to peruse the pages of YouTube for our answer -  many people are  flummoxed as to why SM isn’t dead yet, which is hardly a positive way of looking at his rapidly-approaching senescence. Is this one of the last living example of Keef Syndrome? (other sufferers are Iggy Pop and Mark E.Smith). But it isn’t really hard - any old trip to Camden Town will reveal men in their sixties who look twenty years older. But this is a rock n’roll musician, so different laws seem to apply. Take a look at the hagiography that is the video The Greatest Hope: Life and Songs of Shane McGowan on Tube, a work of consummate sycophancy and overuse of the word ‘genius’. I want it make it clear that I love the first three Pogues albums, but comparisons to Joyce and Behan don’t bear water. They were a great, and much needed, complement to New Romantic and Synth Pop,  but they had their moments from 1985-7, and after that it was off to the ‘Oldies but Goldies’ circuit, with McGowan becoming rapidly a complete pain, and his inability to handle his drinks and drugs leading to the band kicking him out of the band he had formed, Syd Barrett-like.

I’ve used the rather machismo expression in the last sentence purposefully. There does seem to be a large aspect of (mostly) male ego and narcissism at this level of intoxicant use (’industrial quantities’as awe-struck young writers were wont to describe their stashes). But there still clearly remains even today a fascination with this sort of challenging behaviour - what you see now (and didn’t pre-internet) is the state these guys are now in. Mark E. has finally managed to morph into Fiery Jack (except he’s well past 45!) and Roman Totale 111  Iggy looks like something out of H.P.Lovecraft. (the writer, not the San Francisco band).  Just have a look at the wheelchair-bound Shane in the short clip  Frail SM carried out of wheelchair into car before drinking beer at U2 post-gig. So not only does the poor sap have to transfer from a wheelchair, U2 are waiting at the other end, no doubt praying for his recovery.

There is a long tradition of hero-worshipping homo intoxicans, from Thomas de Quincey, to the French Symbolists, to The Beats and the BeBoppers. This is the fascination that is still being played through again, but I do wonder whether its days in rock and jazz are finally coming to an end. Jokers like Pete Docherty obviously wanted in on this particular Zeitgast, but the public weren’t really having it. Chubby junkies don’t make it, it seems, look at that guy from The Smashimg Pumkins. However, it is worth watching another short clip from The Greatest Hope, called SM singing a ballad in a pub. This is the Cringing Cult of Celebrity in action, as an obviously stoned SM, on the nod, slurs out some rebel ballad in a generic pub, to the accompanying ‘shushes’and fingers-to-lips from the other punters, who clearly think their lives have been touched by grace by the pisspot slumped at the bar. Sorry, but all this is neither funny nor amusing, I genuinely think that anyone telling him to tone it down would have been assaulted.

We saw him a few years back at a festival, in the arms of Morpheus again, being supported by his fellow players, and producing nothing except a rather unpleasant memory of both incompetence, arrogance and entitlement. I couldn’t care less what and how much McGowan puts down his neck or smokes, but when you have a paying audience, he needs to show some respect. Except it seems that people have come to expect this sort of thing and love it. I am reminded of the respect with which free improvisers treat their audience, and it is impossible to imagine them acting in this way. Or anybody who has even a basic grasp of a consensus reality.  I have just made a quick calculation, and SM appears to have written about 15 numbers (some co-written) across the first three albums. His unexpected long life is probably due to the same reasons as Donald Trump - he doesn’t actually appear to do that much. Maybe it#s because of a notional ‘outlaw’ image (just like Trump, and I imagine that this is the first time that these two have been compared!).

I will move on to ‘outsider; status next.

A forthcoming gig and some old favourites

I found out this morning about a forthcoming gig at The Vortex in Dalston which is a benefit for the club (hence the slightly high price for tickets, I assume), and will feature the peerless duo of Evan Parker and veteran English double bassist Dave Holland. Holland will surely need no introduction to fans of either modern jazz or free improvisation, his impressive recording history beginning with Miles Davis’s Filles de Kilimanjaro, as far back as 1968. His various trios, quartets, quintets and big bands recorded some of the very best freebop of the eighties and nineties and beyond, his skills as a writer, conductor and arranger complementing those of one of our greatest bass stylists, with his unmistakably fluent, nimble and sonorous sound. Start in the deep end with his solo album, Emerald Tears, from 1978. Then perhaps sample his free improv duo with fellow low end master Barre Phillips on ECM 1011 (a very early ECM, from 1971), the Little Theater live gig with Derek Bailey (again from 1971, ECM 1013), the Company quartet with Bailey, Parker and George Lewis (Fables, Incus 36, 1980) and the Circle double (with Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea and Barry Altchul), Paris Concert (ECM 1018/9).  The latter was yet another gem from Holland’s annus mirabilis 1971, when he also managed to join the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) to record a album, So, What Do You Think?, that can be compared in quality to the more celebrated Karyobin.

Karyobin is perhaps English free improv’s most mythical recording, partly due no doubt, to its sheer unavailablity over the past 50 years or so - the only album to be released on the Island subsidiary Hexagram (the I Ching being all the rage in 1968), it pretty much sank out of sight almost immediately but began to soar upwards in terms of collectability and, accordingly, in the prices being asked for second hand copies. I picked up the Chronoscope Records reissue back in 1993, which those in the know have always said was an inferior mix, especially as regards the rhythm section. Last year, Enanem Records maestro, Martin Davidson, finally released the Adam Skeaping-remastered Karyobin, which has met with acclaim in free improv circles (Evan Parker having eventually come to own the original masters). After some umm-ing and ah-ing as to whether I could justify buying a record that I already own, the news of the forthcoming Parker/Holland gig jump-started me into action, and I have ordered the CD through the Emanem website.

’ First world problems’ or what? 

Still, Davidson’s hard work vis-a-vis the SME back catalogue has paid dividends in terms of making all of its recordings easily available (after decades of neglect). Well done that man. But what about So, What Do You Think? This particular recording has now become the hen’s tooth of this genre, and it would be a shame if it remained hidden as a result of Davidson’s reservations about the drum presence on the masters (which are far too intrusive as far as Davidson  is concerned).

All this, though, makes me think of Kayobin and the upcoming Vortex event as a bit of a momento mori - Parker and Holland are the only ones left of the SME who recorded this album. John Stevens has been dead for over two decades, Derek Bailey for over one, and we lost Wheeler three years back. Let us accordingly give thanks that so many of the master musicians of that era are still with us, and are playing as well as they ever have done.

Dylan - nth time around’ Part 2

So, Dylan’s albums from John Wesley Harding (1968) through to Planet Waves (1974 )had fans and interested observers puzzled. In retrospect, the Americana genre emerged from his work at this period, in cahoots with The Band (especially their first two), The Flying Burrito Brothers (Gilded Palace of Sin). The Byrds (Sweetheart of the Rodeo) and Crosby, Stills and Nash (their first LP in particular). By the early 70s, the floodgates had opened and The Eagles et al cashed in.

The benefit of hindsight notwithstanding, I still think that the albums from 1969 to 1974 are among his weaker albums, despite the plethora of good-to-great tracks, interspersed with the throwaways and never-should-have-beens. But then again, given that The Basement Tapes gave us well over 100 tracks, Dylan had raised the bar to a ridiculous height. Even the excoriated Self-Portrait featured tracks that, now that we know and have become accustomed to The Basement Tapes and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music,  no longer sound like out-of-whack anomalies. Just listen to gems like Days of ‘49 and I Threw It All Away. Back in 1971, though, the average British teenage listener like me had no context in which to place this music. It certainly didn’t sound like Dylan in his ‘big hair’ or ‘protest singer’ incarnations.  Planet Waves finally sounded more like the Dylan we thought we knew and loved, but this proved to be only the start - Dylan re-emerged in 1975 with both his muse and his mojo intact, and the next phase of his ever-developing genius was given shape and form by Blood On The Tracks, almost certainly, in most people’s minds, in the Top Five greatest Dylan albums of all. And many though that he was a spent talent at this stage!

Looking back (which we were advised not to do in the film, like Orpheus!), it is clear why Dylan seemed out of step with his contemporaries (even though it’s now obvious that he was several steps ahead, as ever). The most popular  ‘progressive’ genres, in the newly developing field of ‘rock music’ of the late 60s/early 70s were:

Late Psychedelia (the west coast San Francisco bands, for example); Prog Rock (take your pick of art school/public school types); ‘Space Rock’ (Pink Floyd, Hawkwind). In Pink Floyd, you had a band which crossed all three genres!  

Dylan seemed lightweight in comparison, lacking in heavyosity. Who would have guessed that, at the age of 76, it would be he that would be putting out a triple disc, while all his competitors were dead, retired, burnt out or just plain too old to rock and roll? Nowadays, if something is worth doing, it’s worth over-doing, and Dylan′s latest Great American Songbook compilation, Triplicate (plus his never-ending live touring) is yet another sign that Bob Dylan’s talent is a unique one, and his career presents both the scholar and the fan with a life and a work that is absolutely sui generis.  As in his timeless song Watching the River Flow, Dylan’s recordings can be dipped into time and time again, and yet every time it is the same and yet not the same.

Dylan - nth time around, Part 1

This time last year (January 2017), I blogged about how particular groups/artists re-emerge every few years back into my listening schedule, and stick around for a few weeks before disappearing back into the collection until the next time (”My Re-Appreciation Society”). The chief among these, and certainly the one that goes furthest back, is Bob Dylan.

The reason that Dylan has re-emerged this time around is merely because my wife got me a copy for Xmas of classical studies academic Richard F. Thomas’s Why Dylan Matters, which came out last year, and attempts to demonstrate, with  mixed success, how His Bobness was influenced by classical literature and poetry, especially Virgil and Homer. I wasn’t particularly sold on his arguments, to be frank, and the book seems to me to be yet another hagiography extolling Dylan’s lyrical genius. It still beats me how any writer thinks that they can top Michael Gray’s ridiculously erudite Song and Dance Man, which I first bought in its initial edition circa 1974, and has since become an Alexandrian resource for Dylan scholars. Thomas’s particular shtick is fine as far as it goes - everyone needs to make an honest living after all, and he has cornered a particular niche in Dylan Studies, but this book is far from the best in this vast field (and far from the worse).. What the book has done, however, is send me back into Dylan World, and who knows how long I’ll be stuck here.

I first listened to Dylan records around 1971, a period that is now seen as an interregnum between his ‘wild, mercury’ trilogy (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde) and the ‘divorce’ trilogy (Blood On The Tracks, Desire, Street Legal), and towards the end of the period in which he pretty much invented Americana ( the trilogy of The Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline). One could perhaps make a claim for the likes of Neil Young and Tom Waits as having produced two classic trilogies in their career, but three??!! The received wisdom at that time was that Nashville Skyline, New Morning and Self-Portrait were, at best, mediocre and under-achieving, at worse just plain crap - ‘”what is this shit?”, as Grail Marcus infamously asked in Rolling Stone at the time. The ridiculously over-rated Marcus later saw fit to apologise (in his usual clever-dick way, however) in the booklet that came with the re-release of Self -Portrait as part of The Bootleg Series (Volume 10). Talk about having your cake (or should that be country pie?) and eating it!.

I do remember that fans were experiencing Dylan cold turkey at the time, and the furore that surrounded his 1969 Isle of Wight appearance (some of which appears on Self-Portrait). People were desperate for Dylan product, but the material that was emerging was not to their taste on the whole, and the way that all this has been carefully forgotten/reframed in the present day is one of the most telling examples of the fickleness of taste and fashion and the way that history can be re-written as a result of these factors.


To Be Continued

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