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Mark Fisher and James Joyce Made Simple? Part Two.

Ian Penman was clearly a friend and a big influence on Mark Fisher’s writing. He and fellow-writer Paul Morley were, for NME fans of my own ancient vintage, hugely controversial figures of that time (1979-81), absurd as that might now sound, when music journalism holds far less of a sway for young people (rightly so, many would say). Penman’s prose was elliptical and slippery, discursive and referential, particularly to such modern French philosophers as Derrida, Lacan and Baudrillard, which irritated readers beyond belief (and relief) as most felt that he was being a clever-dick and ‘polytechnic show-off’ (the latter put-down demonstrated a degree of class-based criticism from his critics, and one which particularly offended Mark Fisher, who self-identified as a working-class intellectual).

In retrospect, this might indeed have been a sign of critics taking themselves a wee bit too seriously, but this stuff was now being taught at university level (as we have seen with my friend), so it seemed. Sure enough, a stream of academically-informed ‘rock literature’, spearheaded by the likes of Simon Frith (The Sociology of Rock, for starters!),soon began to appear, one that has shown no sign of abating. Mark Fisher perhaps represents one extreme of this, as Darren Ambrose’s list of his favourite references demonstrates. Another friend of Fisher’s, Simon Reynolds, has undoubtedly demonstrated that erudition need not be an obstacle for clear, unemcumbered communication in the field. And a best seller: his Rip It Up and Start Again and Retromania remain popular and essential reading.

I have been a lover of James Joyce since first attempting the Himalayan task of making sense of Ulysses from 1974 onward (I’m too aware of my own intellectual frailties to attempt Finnegans Wake, although two friends have claimed successful ascents). I admit to having found the much-decried ‘Coles Notes’ (i.e. ‘Idiot Guides’ of the time, for O and A Level students), but Anthony Burgess’ book has proved difficult and challenging for me, 46 years on, even after having read many other Joyce exegeses. I’d certainly recommend Frank Budgen’s (who knew Joyce well) James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (1934) and even James Joyce’s Odyssey (1981) by Frank Delaney (with contemporary  photos!!) over Burgess. Writing for the Ordinary Reader is far form easy, and Burgess demanded considerable ancillary reading and knowledge from such a reader.

As does Fisher’s writing. Unlike Reynolds, he clots up his prose with the bindweed of multiple referencing to the figures of modern French and Eastern European philosophy, psychoananalysis (with no explication, for just one example, however simplistic, of Lacan’s relationship with Freudian thinking). This is writing for what we called, in my day, ‘pseuds’. Name-dropping for the sake of it, names of which the Ordinary Reader is liable to make little sense of (my wife undertook a Philosophy course, and still couldn’t make sense of the likes of Lacan and Derrida, and she’s far from stupid). What’s it all about, Jacques?

In the end, this is complex material, perhaps over-complicated by an inability to communicate relatively straightforward ideas through a comfortable, and comforting, network of jargon? However, I must commend Fisher’s writing about mental health/illness (a subject that I have considerable experience of, as, tellingly, did Fisher). These writings bear the witness of truth, and it shows.

Mark Fisher and James Joyce Made Simple? Part One.

I’ve started reading again, after three months of lockdown, when I mainly watched a myriad of YouTube videos, and managed to complete a first draft of my modest history of the London Musicians’ Collective. So, my recommenced reading has been kick started by a re-reading K-Punk, the collected writings of the late Mark Fisher, and a first reading of Here Comes Everybody, Anthony Burgess’ 1965  ‘Introduction to James Joyce for the ordinary reader’. It is this idea of the Ordinary Reader that interests me most here.

Burgess wrote this in his Preface:

“ The time is coming for both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake to be made available for the paperback audience that already knows his earlier, more orthodox, fiction. This audience needs the guidance of a sort of pilot-commentary, and that is what my book tries to be”.

Remember that this was the era of Paul McCartney’s ‘Paperback Writer’, which presupposed a growing audience of educated working class readers, one that ‘needed the guidance’ of paternalistic and patrician Virgils such  as Burgess, who one would have thought would be ideal, what with his Clockwork Orange of three years earlier, with its working class protagonists and their own particular meta-language. All this aside, it would be interesting to have heard  hear the reactions of the ‘average’ Ordinary Reader to this Introduction to Joyce, back in 1965.

Jump forward to 2018, a year after Fisher’s death, and as his editor,Darren  Ambose, sought to reassure potential readers about the contents of this weighty (about the same length as Ulysses) compilation of the hyper-referential critic’s work:

“Some of his references and allusions are undoubtedly challenging and potentially intimidating -Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, Marcuse, Adorno, Althusser, Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard, Jameson, Zizek, Zupancic, Badiou, Beradi, Lacan - but his writing is never marked by the zealous pedantry exhibited by so much academic writing in the theoretical humanities”. I count myself a reasonably informed Ordinary Reader, and yet I hadn’t even heard of at least four of these ‘names’, making it, at least in my terms, a ‘specialist’ read. Just like, I’m afraid, is  Ulysses, which has nevertheless always remained my own personal favourite book over the past five decades

“Theoretical humanities” and “academic writings”?   Ambrose rather disingenuously gives himself away right at the beginning, just as Burgess did with his ‘paperback audience’s need for guidance’ pat-on-the-head comment. Fisher was indeed an academic, with his PhD in Philosophy from my own alma mater, the University of Warwick, and his Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU.) Which is all fine, but hardly lets the Ordinary Reader know what’s in store in terms of potential difficulties with the jargon and specificities of Cultural Studies literature..

I well remember, back in 1977, when I and my circle had completed our undergraduate degrees at Warwick (which was far less well-regarded, at least academically, back then) and we were all wondering what to do next; and one of our own revealed that he was going to Sheffield University to do a further degree, in Cultural Studies. We all asked ‘WTF is ‘Cultural Studies’ when it’s at home? Two years later, we all began to find out, when Ian Penman started to write for the New Musical Express, our bible at the time.

To be continued.

‘Wipe Out’: A Rock/Improv Missing Link?

There are a few albums that serve almost as ‘missing links’ or ‘roads not taken’, in the syncretic worlds of classic rock and jazz, for example Frank Zappa’s 1969 Hot Rats, Soft Machine’s 1970 Three and Henry Cow’s Unrest (1974). I’ve recently ‘discovered’ Amalgam’s 1979 live recordings from a northern England tour, called Wipe Out, and it’s one more jigsaw piece from that most turbulent of musical decades. It was the Covid ‘lock down’ that led me to Wipe Out, as it gave me the time to complete my long-researched book on the London Musicians Collective (LMC), in the midst of which I realised that this forgotten collection was still available, even though I had to use Discogs to source it from Finland, and it took over four weeks to arrive. Still, it’s good to remember that we once had to delay gratification to get to the music we were interested in!!

Wipe Out is a little remembered item, and its easy to see why. John Wickes mentions it in his long out-of-print classic, ‘Innovations in British Jazz (1960-1980)’, in which he describes the “special brand of crude speed and eerie effects” from AMM’s Keith Rowe, here playing what can almost be described as ‘punk’ guitar, just as he subsequently essayed on 1979′s It Had Been an Ordinary Enough Day in Pueblo, Colorado, AMM’s supposed ‘rock album’. Wickes cleverly compares the effect of Rowe’s muscular playing on Trevor Watts to “that of Pharoah Sanders on John Coltrane, inspiring him to his ecstatic outest, and at times in these performances, the group seemed possessed” (Wickes, 1980, page 237).

Brian Olewnick, in his Rowe biography of  2018, was rather more condescending to this iteration of Amalgam, and felt that Rowe was betraying the ideals of AMM, by playing in “an essentially reactionary fashion” (page 253). It’s certainly somewhat disconcerting to hear the guitarist of The Crypt and AMMMusic riffing repeated distorted and rather crude figures, but he does manage to smear the group sound in various challenging and at times unpleasant ways, just as he did in these earlier AMM recordings. “Context is all”, as someone once said, and the context here was the punk and post-punk ‘movements’ that organisations like the LMC were more than happy to accommodate. Olewnick, despite his sniffiness, does point out the potential links between Wipe Out and Ornette Coleman’s recently formed electric band Prime Time (whose eventual breakthrough album, Of Human Feelings, was recorded in March, 1979), Ornette’s guitarist James Blood Ulmer (who came to attention, in this country at least, in 1980, with the Rough Trade Records release of Are You Glad to be in America?) and Last Exit, the ‘jazz punk’ supergroup which formed in the mid-1980s, and featured another jazz-skronk guitarist, Sonny Sharrock.  Bassist Colin McKenzie played some pronounced contemporary, funk-ified ‘slap bass’ in Wipe Out, what’s more, just as Liam Genockey was clearly an experienced rock drummer.

I would never previously had placed Rowe in this lineage. However, the other notable feature of this line-up was in providing one of the few examples of a collaboration of ‘First Generation’ improvisers from its two main ensembles, AMM and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME). Other than Wipe Out (and Over the Rainbow by the same Amalgam), we only have SME saxophonist Evan Parker’s duos with AMM’s Rowe and Eddie Prevost, and the Supersession (1984) band (consisting of Rowe, Prevost, Parker and former SME bassist, Barry Guy) to show for any recorded and released collaborations between these two seismic improvising ensembles. Wipe Out remains a curate’s egg, and in many ways resembles more of a Free Jazz blow-out than it does either a ‘laminar’ or an ‘atomistic’ proposition (the twin poles of free improv ‘styles’), but it is undoubtedly a powerful product of that time. A good indication of its impact is the sound of the Music Revelation Ensemble (which featured a young David Murray and Ulmer, along with Ornette alumni Jamaaladeen Tacoma and Ronald Shannon Jackson). 

‘Energising’, and some would say, somewhat paradoxically, ‘enervating’ material (’Tribute to Mingus’ is nearly 40 minutes [over] long), this is very, very intense stuff, but should be of interest to all of those interested in free improvisation, free jazz, jazz-rock, jazz-funk and rock, i.e. loads of us! Trevor Watts’ contribution deserves a blog in itself, a musician who is the same age as Bob Dylan, and one who remains an equivalent example of creative longevity.

‘Murder Most Foul’ by Bob Dylan. Part Two.

The front cover to ‘ Rough and Rowdy Ways’ (RRW) appears to feature the shot of a’ juke joint’, that most mythopoeic of American 50/60s venues, that sustained black music, and enjoyment of same, through those decades. In particular, these joints provided a link to pre-rock and roll, doowop, r n’b and other ‘race music’ that Bob Dylan would have consumed in his pre-fame days, both live and through the jukebox (which one punter can be seen sampling on the album cover). JFK, on the rear cover, offers a ‘white’ alternative narrative, and Dylan explores both.

Kitty Empire, in her largely positive review of the new album in The Observer of 21/06/20, herself a post-baby boomer (born in 1970) tried this comment on for size:

“Is it a last baby boomer hurrah?”

As I suggested in the previous blog, maybe she’s right. No-one else from this generation seems able to step up to this particular plate, but the ‘generation-identity’ industry is now up and running, and beyond parody - the war babies, the boomers, the millennials, Gens X, Y and Zee. As the Duke said: “there simply are two types of music, good and the other kind”. Obfuscating this by a certain ‘ageism’ (which some journalists are trying to promote, through inter-generational ‘splitting’, one tactic of which is to encourage mutual projective processes, involving envy and resentment) do not reflect well on Empire - if one were to continue of the theme of age, one might well ask why a 50-year old is still reviewing pop music? As a millennial, what right does she have to be commenting on south Korean K-Pop, the music of an entirely different generation? No fool like an old fool, as they say.

 Luckily, I am above such petty passive-aggressive stuff. Ideally.

‘Kitty’ Empire, however, won’t let it lie:

“Were it not for the presence of bluesmen, jazz men and rock and rollers, Dylan, a one-time quaker of the social order, would emerge as a rather square and fusty autodidact. He remains mired in the groups of the 20th century and longer ago, an unexamined position of high boomerism”.

This is attention-seeking journalism, and taken from a position of asinine condescension. For a start, Dylan was a ‘war baby’, born in 1941 (so-called ‘baby boomers’ spanned 1944-1964), so please get your socio-cultural stereotypes accurate, Ms. Empire. Bob Dylan is 80 years old next year, so some degree of ‘fustian’ is to be expected. But ‘fustian’ also implies a degree of ‘pretentious speech and writing’, according to Wiki, so I’d like to call out Kitty Empire’s use of ‘square’, a term which was becoming outdated even by 1970, the year of Kitty’s birth, thus demonstrating her own fustiness. So come on, expecting a 79-year old to be writing songs that demonstrate 2020 gender-identity awareness is a daft and condescending as an journo approaching a review of the world’s most famous songwriter without her own ‘agender’.

‘Twas ever thus. ‘Desolation Row’, for example, mixed modern rock/pop/blues references with more arcane ones, all “…fighting in the captain’s tower”. So nothing to see here. Empire’s comments about the perceived lack of female referencing is woke genderising personified. Dylan has always referenced women, from Hattie Carroll onward, and his love songs are world famous, for good reason. There are few songs as complex and resonant of lost love as “Tangled Up In Blue”, to take just one small example. The BTL comments to Empire’s review are most interesting, but I’ll finish with Alexis Petridis, another critic who is also hovering around the 50th birthday milestone, and his more measured assessment of RRW:

“This isn’t perhaps the most comfortable communique to issue in the middle of a global pandemic, but then the man behind it has seldom dealt in soothing reassurance” (5-star review in the Guardian of 13/06/20).

Just think back to 1962′s ‘Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. Dylan’s ‘boomerism’ is far from ‘unexamined’, and it remains as relevant and powerful as it was in ’62, however Kitty Empire wants to spin it.

‘Murder Most Foul’: A Most Apposite Title for 2020. Part One.

Its interesting that Bob Dylan has placed his 17-minute epic, ‘Murder Most Foul’ (MMF), as a separate disc to the nine-track Rough and Rowdy Ways (RRW), the main event, thus giving it particular prominence. Would he have done the same, I wonder, with those other lengthy album closers, ‘Desolation Row’, ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ and ‘Highlands’?

How many of Dylan’s near-contemporaries (Bob Dylan was released in March 1962, nearly 60 years ago) can release an album that has garnered such interest and praise as Rough and Rowdy Ways? The Rolling Stones? Paul McCartney? Stevie Wonder? Elton John? Van Morrison? Neil Young? The only over-50 years old rock/pop figure that I think could generate an equivalent interest is Tom Waits, who seems to have genuinely retired, at least from the music business. Bad As Me, Waits’ last record came out in 2011, the preceding year to Dylan’s last album of self-composed numbers, Tempest. Both were released well before ‘Generation Z’ self-identified, making them now seem very much things of the past.

Dylan, however, has retained the ability, consciously or not, to reflect in his material the mood of Anglo-American ‘progressives’, and perhaps larger society as a whole. He did it famously in the 1960′s with his ‘protest songs’ (at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis) and his ‘wild mercury years’ of 1964-6; at the time of the attack on the Twin Towers (Love and Theft was released on 09/11/01); and now, in the spring/summer of 2020, with RRW and MMF, the titles of which reflect on the murder most foul of George Floyd, just one example of the rough and rowdy behaviour of so many cops, American and European. The eschatological tone of these recordings suits the devastating toll of Covid-19 and the controlled fury of the Black Lives Matter protests. To compound the sense of historic syncronicity, Bob Dylan was himself born in Minnesota and attended its Minneapolis University, not far from where George Floyd was killed by yet another rogue cop.

Kitty Empire pointed out Dylan’s supposed “lack of interest in modernity”, in her review in The Observer (which will be discussed in the next blog), a charge that could be supported by the artists’ last three albums, which have all consisted entirely of material culled from the ‘Great American Songbook’ (I especially liked the first, Shadows in the Night, if anyone’s interested). Now, I’ve never been a fan of Dylan’s ‘blues’ numbers, dating back as far as ‘Pledging My Time’, and now including RRW’s ‘False Prophet’, ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ and ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, but usually the lyrics and that voice make up for any musical clunkiness.  To counterpoint Empire’s ageism, I offer Mark Beaumont, from the NME (yes, that NME), who comments thus on Dylan’s shape-shifting:

“Bluesman, silent movie clowns, soul queens, rockers, hippies and pin-ups - Dylan revels in a hundred years of creative progress as if in accusation of America’s immutable ideological savagery”.

The first track on RRW is ‘I Contain Multitudes’, a lift from Walt Whitman (who also gifted ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ to Weather Report for the title of their second album in 1972). This certainly seems apposite, and the much commented upon referential incontinence of RRW and (especially) MMF, is one of the most immediately striking aspects of these most consequential recordings.

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