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Return to a ‘New Norm’ of ‘Out of Home Experiences’?

On Wednesday, I experienced a return to a level of outside activity that would have seemed ‘averagely normal’ only 18 or so months previously, but now seems head-whirlingly multivalent: a film in the cinema, a meal in a restaurant, and a live music event. All in FIVE hours, what’s more! The fact that all three experiences were, in addition,very positive gave me a considerable boost, at a time where there has been little to celebrate. (One reason for the lack of blogs recently has been a series of personal and familial losses, post-Covid hesitancy and my continual bemusement with the behaviour of our elected government and the populace that voted them into power.)

The film was director Todd Haynes’ newie, The Velvet Underground, and I urge everyone interested to catch it on the big screen, where its immersive sound will pin you to your seat. The split-screen techniques may annoy some (and perhaps bring back memories of having to endure Woodstock: the Movie), but there is enough high content here to satiate even the most obsessive leather jacket & shades merchant. It’s two hours in length, but flew by for me, even though I was one of those smart asses who figured that “there is nothing new you can tell me about the Velvets, man”. The structure of the film is as it should be with regards to its various participants: invariably it’s mostly the’Lou and John Show’, with the two musical poles of this historic band being Reed and Cale. It is clearly narrated how the unique sound of the VU emerged from the creative tensions of these two avantists who shared a pop sensibility. They shared equally difficult childhoods, with parents who were ignorant of and indifferent to their children’s unorthodox attitudes and intentions. The early/mid-60s New York scene is given considerable time, as is The Factory scene and Warhol. Mo Tucker and Sterling Morrison (and even Doug Yule) are given an appropriate amount of time to celebrate their own (very strong, in the case of the first two), contributions but there was always only going to be twp main(men), with John Cale coming across as a man who has tamed his demons, to emerge, impressively, as someone seemingly without rancour, (to be commended, given the way he was treated by Reed) and content with his lot. I really can’t recommend it strongly enough for anyone who has been captivated by probably rock music’s most challenging and influential group. (And I haven’t even mentioned Nico!)

We moved on to Dalston, and visited Evin Cafe on Kingsland Road (just down from the Rio Cinema on the same side), a Turkish restaurant that we have visited many times on various pre-Cafe Oto excursions. I particularly recommend the succulent lamb chops, marinaded overnight and slow cooked for just under an hour. I haven’t been to Oto since March 2020, so it was great to be back, to witness a Dominic Lash Quartet iteration, the last one of which I saw in January of that year. Lash himself and John Butcher remained, but Mark Saunders’ drum seat had been surrendered to Steve Noble, and Pat Thomas’ piano replaced the guitar of the late John Russell, who, it turned out, was sadly playing one of his last live gigs. The second set was by a large scale Lash ‘Consort’ (16 in number, I think), who unfurled a masterful ‘quiet through to sheer racket and back’ piece. I only recognised Steve Beresford (on kitchen sink et al.) in the Consort (Lash was hidden away behind a pillar on guitar, which says much about his healthy lack of narcissism), Phil Durrant (modular synth), Hannah Marshall (cello) and Angharad Davies (violin). Apparently, the music was mostly improvised, an impressive brush-with-chaos, given the amount of participants and the risk of musical shipwreck represented by the event as a whole. Lash opined that the group were really relying on a sort of ‘muscle memory’ from their last performance in this space on the thirteenth January 2020, in which case even  more power to their discipline and focus on the night.

More to come at various venues through November by the look of it, and it will be very interesting to see what our dunces in Parliament will do with regards to the ‘entertainment industry’, if Covid-19 continues to provide its unavoidable political and epidemiological dissonances.  (Boris Johnson clearly prefers uncomplicated major chords and ‘open tuning’!.) This was my fourth live gig of 2021 (thus equalling my four of 2020), and I just  hope that I can leap that low bar (being my lowest gig attendance since, I fear, 1970) over the next couple of months: “O brave new world…”, as Miranda has it in The Tempest, someone else who had suffered somewhat from isolation from her fellows.

More Post-Lockdown Live Action!

So, I attended my THIRD live gig of the year last Sunday. (In 2020, I managed FOUR of same, so I may even exceed that figure this year, with any luck.) Three of these events, over 2020/2021, were put on by the London Improvisers’ Orchestra (LIO), divided between Lambeth’s Iklectik and, on Sunday, St. Mary’s Church in Stoke Newington, which overlooks Clissold Park. Whilst Ikectik is an intimate space, Saint Mary’s makes social distancing demands somewhat easier to adhere to, with its many rows of wooden pews. Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, the number of those on stage (22) again slightly outnumbered those in the pews (around 18) in this weekend performance. However, in the spirit of the Little Theatre Club, the musicians gave as purposeful a performance on the night as they would if they were playing at the Albert Hall. Physical scale, for these guys, seems as relevant in these settings,as musical ones.

The sacerdotal environment reminded me of how many great performances have taken place in such spaces, from AMM’s Crypt session in 1968 in Ladbrooke Grove, through to ECM’s recordings in St. Gerold’s church in Austria, through to Islington’s Union Chapel. Although these sites can be freezing in winter, their acoustics can be enjoyed in comfort in the summer/autumn months. While my previous two LIO gigs featured downsized ensembles, Sunday had the full monty, with some conductions, or guided improvisations, led by, to give two examples, Steve Beresford and Dave Tucker (both are invariably reliable ‘conductors’, in my experience), and some great single improviser sections. (Phil Minton gave us some wonderful whistling, and someone, perhaps Adam Bowman, provided some inspiring dog barks, which I, probably fancifully, felt might have been an oblique salute to the late Lee Perry.)

I’m looking forward to seeing Phillip Jeck at Ikectik at the end of this month. It’s always reassuring to see and hear ‘Best of British’ artists, but at the same time I regret the continuing absence of European and American performers, never mind those from even further afield. (Listening to Hurricane Ida devastating the south-eastern of the USA, I am reminded of the sound of Merzbow, the two proving almost indistinguishable, surely a hats-off tribute to the ‘Japanoise’ master?) As the twin disasters of Covid and Brexit continue to unfurl, it seems that we should continue to be grateful for the amount of home-grown talent that sustains us through these bad times.

Some Live Improv Action At Last!!

So I went to a live gig on the 16th July, purportedly to hear reeds woman Sue Lynch and N.O. Moore in a trio with Lucie Stephenson on electronics and ‘objects’, very much an 'improvisers within electronics’ proposition. However, Stephenson got 'pinged’, so had to self-isolate and, very handily, old stalwarts John Edwards and Steve Beresford stepped into the breach. An instant 'supergroup’ was thus configured, an attraction that I very much needed, after a nightmare car journey through Islington’s new traffic systems, that very much seemed to force cars through major roads and council estates rather than through the borough’s gentrified Georgian purlieus. (Yes, I know. I should have taken public transport and will in future, but I do wonder who these projects will ultimately benefit.)

The Hundred Years Gallery is, shamefully, a new one on me. It was a hot evening, with the door remaining open on to the outside terrace. Apparently, gigs usually take place in the basement, but the unexpected addition tonight of a Beresford piano appearance, meant that the performance took place on the ground floor of the gallery. This meant that some of the (admittedly very sparse) audience sat outside - how many of these eventually paid the risibly small entry fee (£5 - I insisted on paying them 10) is open to question, as the entrance operations seemed fairly ad hoc. (Free Improvisers means of existence has always been a mystery to me, and tonight’s gig merely reinforced my uncertainties; Nathan Moore confirmed to me that he has a proper day job.)

Alex Ward gave us some comic relief by phoning the Gallery shortly before the start, and seeming to harass the host by demanding to know when the gig started, spinning his queries out for about five minutes. (He eventually failed to turn up, when all way said and done.) The ensuing performance of Moore/Beresford/Lynch and Edwards was an entirely satisfactory pointillist example of free improv over two sets, with the rather idiosyncratic sight of half the audience on the outside looking in. My impression was of a Cubist Jimmy Giuffre Quartet (with Lynch on clarinet and tenor, and Moore filling the Jim Hall role). The second set had a more kinetic 'free improv’ feel, with increased use of 'little instruments’, and it was again interesting for me to observe another 'uncertain ending’: the second set grinded to an ambivalent halt, at which Beresford assertively stated that “that’s the end, isn’t it?”, as the others seemed rather inclined to carry on. Steve was right, but then again he is a free improviser of fifty years standing, so he should know!

All in all, it was so great to return to live improv, and to see Steve and John again. Sue Lynch and Nathan Moore remain talents to be reckoned with, and I hope that they will gain increased recognition in the post-Covid live environment. It’s a shame that I subsequently screwed up a very promising gig on the 1st. August, featuring a trio of John Butcher, Dominic Lash and Hannah Marshall, again at the Hundred Years Gallery, by getting the time wrong - I assumed it began at 19.30, when in fact it was at 15.30. Doh! upon Doh! I always associate improv with evening performances, which just goes to prove the tyranny of assumptions.

Vinyl Shenanigans

I’m currently reading anthropologist Daniel Miller’s 2008 study of the ‘stuff’ people in a south London street sample surround themselves with, called The Comfort of Things. With 'Simon’, for example, it’s vinyl (15,000 records 'in storage’) and compact discs (only a modest 2000 items in this format). For Miller, “(Simon) wants to keep it (i.e. this 'exteriority’) at hand, to use it in composing and constructing himself on a regular basis. That’s why its important for him to have the music physically out there, as vinyl and CDs…so that, like a cook’s ingredients, they are all at hand when he needs them…a restless search for signs of himself”. For others, 'Simon’ might merely be a 'size queen’?

Aha! So that’s the ontological causation behind the 'vinyl revival’ then? Motivated by the aesthetic denudation of the streaming media, UK youth are determined to surround themselves with beautiful objets of the 12" x 12" kind? (7-inchers don’t seem to have been similarly celebrated, curiously.) My son seems to have become one of these twenty/thirty-somethings who luxuriate in both old and new vinyl, the prices of which (glimpsed in a nostalgic trip to Sheffield’s HMV the other day) had my eyebrows scraping the shop’s ceiling. Most of the old rock classics cost around £25, and new releases reach up to £30. I’ve also noticed a recent aspect of record company malfeasance, the penny dropping whilst listening to two of Nathan’s latest double-album purchases, Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition and Madlib’s Shades of Blue - Madlib invades Blue Note. (The latter features similar artificially 'aged’ cover designs to those that dominated Elvis Costello’s Get Happy! as far back as 1980, thus demonstrating that postmodernism hasn’t completely died yet. For Costello, it was Stax; for Lib, it’s Blue Note uber-referentiality.)

There currently appears to be a pronounced tendency to release CD - length recordings (i.e. 50-60 minutes) as double vinyl product (i.e. 15 minutes or less per side, EPs by any other name), but retailing at at least £30. Now, readers of my own age, or slightly younger, will remember that vinyl doubles were a relative rarity in the late sixties and seventies. To recall, both Blonde on Blonde and Freak Out! were the first rock doubles, both released in mid-1966. By 1968, the triumvirate of rock’s arguably most celebrated bands each released treasured era-defining doubles of approximately 20 minutes per side, Electric Ladyland, The Beatles and Wheels of Fire. Triple rock albums were even rarer, All Things Must Pass and The Dead’s Europe '72 spring to mind as very early examples. So it seems to me that releasing single CDs in exotic double vinyl guises is an as cynical yet impressive reverse - sleight of hand as putting out compact discs in the mid-eighties, at similarly grossly inflated prices (around £18 for an ECM disc as I recall) as these new new vinyl doubles.

It seems that there will always be those who will shell out for shiny new baubles, streaming be damned, and that record companies will always treat recorded music, even stuff that is more than fifty years old, as the gift that keeps on giving. Of course, there is always the “the shorter the length of the side, the better the sound, especially with dance and bass-heavy music” argument, one that fans of the original Metal Box triple 12" discs used, but, to be frank, “money talks and bullshit walks” as Spinal Tap’s immortal Bobbi Fleckman, “the hostess with the most-ess”, would have it.

By the way, must get Atrocity Exhibition.

More Paul M. on Bob D. Part Three.

Paul Morley’s own ‘Dylan trajectory’ bears some comparisons with mine (he is one year and a half years younger than me): he was introduced to BD around 1971 with the then-new release of New Morning, at a time when critic were suggesting that “his star power and greatest songs were behind him” (Morley, p.184). Little did he (or we) know what lay shortly around the corner…Planet Waves acted as an humble-but-honest broker for his soon to be resurrected career behemoths, the 1974-8 'second triumvirate’ of Blood on the Tracks, Desire and Street Legal.

It seemed like a long furlough after the infamous motorcycle 'event’ of summer 1966, but it should be born in mind that Time was elastic for Dylan fans at that point: the previous triumvirate, Bringing it all Back Home (recorded in January 1965), Highway 61 Revisited (July and August 1965) and Blonde on Blonde (January-March 1966) were all recorded in just over ONE YEAR!! I can’t think of any equivalent 'wild mercury’ period by any other pop/rock artist/band, even by the Fab Four? (One would surely have to be forced to refer to such contemporary jazz giants as Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane to experience such a compressed period of excellence in vinyl output.) No wonder the relatively gentle pace of the John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning sequence (1968-71) seemed pedestrian in qualitative comparison, even though, with the benefit of hindsight, this was clearly a questionable equivalence (don’t forget to factor in the Little White Wonder bootlegs on top of these others!) The fact that he fathered five kids in the same amount of years may have contributed to a feeling of exhaustion. Perhaps?

It’s funny how Morley, for all his love of prolix detail and his oppressive piling up of names and numbers, makes a few factual howlers. Whilst any author can do this (guilty as charged!), Morley’s Alexandrian and encyclopedic approach to his material can render his misnomers rather compelling. For example, he repeats one faulty misidentification in particular, on several occasions, and it is one that a critic of his depth of knowledge and experience simply should not make: the 'Judas shout out’ gig in Manchester was part of the 1966 tour, NOT of the 1965 Don’t Look Back itinerary. The two tours are potentially easily confused - D. A. Pennebaker’s initial ultra-hip documentary has given its 1965 events an indelible historical sheen, but any equivalence for its 1966 sister, Eat the Document, has been obviated by the latter’s opaque and obscure history. Ultimately, Eat the Document was so cool that it was itself swallowed by its own sense of significance (Beat will Eat Itself?) On the other hand, the fact that Dylan insisted on controlling the editing process undoubtedly hastened its ultimate deliquescence; just look at how Tarantula turned out, what looked cool on the back of an LP cover was decidedly uncool when unspooled over multiple pages. I clearly remember how Tarantula appeared on most of my peer group’s bookshelves, but no-one seemed able or willing to give it any sort of thumbs-up. (The same fate met the albums from that period, until Planet Waves finally gathered a gradual tide of tentative approval in early 1974, to the sound of gratefully expired critical breath. I still think that it is Dylan’s 'punk’ album, by the way, and gave us all reasons to be hopeful at the time.)

Morley’s misattributions do seem somehow appropriate in a book that suggests that its subject’s hallucinatory, multivalent work renders Time fragile and uncertain? (I worry here, that I am straying into pretentious, moi? territory, but this does seem somehow inevitable at some points.) Dylan’s The Bootleg Series perform an a-temporal function, just as Miles’ Legacy Series does for the trumpeter, a palimpsest and a laminal layering of the artists 'classic numbers’ that present them as fundamentally protean and unstable (yet fundamentally immutable?) Dylan and Miles helped to free us from the fragile tyranny of the 'perfect version’, whether it be Miles’ 1959 studio cut of 'So What’ on Kind of Blue ,or 'Stuck In Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’ on Blonde on Blonde. (Thus liberating them and us from the 'originals’.) The concept of 'classic’ and/or 'ur’ recordings can dissuade other interpretations of same. Dub reggae’s 'versions’, however, offered one take on innovative sound and mixing that helped to make the idea of the inviolate and untouchable 'take’/'mix’ a thing of the (very recent?) past.

Bob Dylan made a considerable contribution to the idea of music-as-flux, an “everchangingneverchanging” flow, as James Joyce had it. He has never stood still, and I think that Paul Morley’s book, in its own idiosyncratic way(s), helps us understand just why Dylan’s work is so radically transformative. for its author and for his listeners

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.