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“Wholly Communion”: the Sixties Replayed as Farce Part One

Having just read a book on William Burroughs’ influence on rock music, I thought I’d revisit the director Peter Whitehead’s 1967 film of ‘Wholly Communion’, the supposedly epochal  Albert Hall poetry readings held on 11the. June 1965. Featuring several of Burroughs’ Beat poet mates, including the execrable Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Alexander Trocchi, the event has gone down in countercultural history as  representing “for a day, (a unification of) various London scenes, cultural, creative and drug taking”. For several commentators, this day was the start of London’s countercultural adventure, furthered in 1966 by the ‘Swinging London’ trope and reaching its apogee (or nadir?) in the ‘Summer of Love’ of 1967 (which was depicted more famously in Whitehead’s Tonight, Let’s All Make Love in London, a more ludicrous title of which would be hard to think of). A (very) rough USA equivalent would be the ‘Gathering of the Tribes’ in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967. (Ginsberg was equally smug, smirking and attention-seeking at that gig too.)

So, the whole parade kicks of with a Ginsberg ‘mantra’, with the bearded buffoon playing the spoons (or were they actually Tibetan bells?), and trying to come off as some kind of ancient seer from the pages of Doctor Strange? The audience, all-dressed up, preening and smoking artistically, many, laughably, (the first Velvets album was two years away) in sunglasses, look booored (and I don’t mean ‘fashionably’). The ‘look’ is very much high-Mod, pre-hippie, and is one of the most interesting aspects of this cultural petri-dish. There is even a prominent member of the Church of England in attendance (which just about sums it up). I have to remark, at this point, how much Gregory Corso’s delivery and diction reminded me of Trout Mask-era Beefheart. Anyone else agree? There is lots of Vietnam-agonising and USSR crypto-glasnosting here, as one might expect. Also, a lot of posturing and downright mediocrity, which cannot be truly appreciated without actually watching this 50-minute film: it’s all too easy to mock from a safe distance, but for those of us of a certain age, it does blow up (in both senses of the word) some of the pretentiousness and even unpleasantness of the time, which has often been downplayed by those who valorise the likes of Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac. And it perhaps further demonstrates why the counterculture was never going to really work in practice.

Next up: the poets themselves in all their g(l)ory.

MF DOOM: The Madvillain

I’m not really in a position to give a fully informed reflection on the importance of the late hiphop artist MF Doom (or on his producer Madlib), but I’d like to have a stab at acknowledging his importance, mainly because the report of his death (which occurred as far back as October) has somewhat discombobulated (or even just plainly upset?) my 30-year old son, for whom he is an extremely important artist. It’s always salutary, I think, for music fans of my age to properly appreciate, if we can, the achievements of artists from later generations, even as the impulse remains to dig down in to the product of one’s own ’glory days’. This can be more difficult than it sounds.

I’d been aware of Doom since Nathan’s purchase of Madvillain back in the mid-00s. I have to admit to only giving it a cursory listening at the time, not finding anything of sufficient interest to detain me beyond two or three spins. Big mistake. It was really only on hearing of his premature death a couple of days ago (cause uncertain) that I felt a need to reassess the recording, feeble as that sounds. It undoubtedly has something to do with the Covid-related sense of transience and impermanence that we all live with today, and the fact the Doom was only in his late-40s. Was his yet another Covid death? I guess I wanted to pay some respect  and attention to an MC who was clearly so respected by my son’s generation, if that doesn’t sound too condescending. I do sometimes get into arguments with friends who seem enmeshed in the music of the 60s/70s and who seem dismissive of music post - 2000 (this includes, of course, internal arguments with myself and my own biases).

So, impressions of Madvillain include a sample-rich environment, with some references that I can relate to (from Zappa’s Uncle Meat, for example). Samples celebrating weed and getting stoned, and multiple comic book nods and winks reminding me a a far less aggressive and macho Wu Tang Clan and its various splinter artists. Going further back, there are reminders of Public Enemy’s piling up of ‘laminar’ layers, a multi-referential, complex sound field (”silly goose” being just one echo/micro-reference to PE’s Flavor Flav that even I can pick up on). It contains much less directly ‘political’ references than PE, and I was also reminded of John Zorn’s fractured and unreliable ‘surfaces’. The content is constantly agitated, unreliable and on the move, somewhat like Naked City’s stylistic mish mashes.

It’s a far gentler sampladelia than many, though. To my perhaps naive mind, it seems to be, to use a much misused word, a ‘transitional’ album, between more hostile 90s forms and more ‘progressive’ hiphop, that welcomes both Afro-Futurism (there are references to Sun Ra) and the more gentle administrations of the brief Daisy Age of rap, with its playfulness and good (or at least better) humour. Or am I just talking bollocks? I’ve always felt a bit of an imposter in this world, which is as complex and multi-threaded as that of ‘jazz’ (where I feel much more comfortable). But I can see here that Madvillain demands as much creative listening as any Miles Davis album. It’s clear to me (duh!) that this is great music and I’m at that enviable point of still discovering more and more with each listening.

Doom is obviously a great loss to creative music.

Mark Fisher and Collectivism, Part Two

Mark Fisher ended his 2016 blog Cybergothic vs Steampunk (two subgenres that he saw as “archaisms, obstructions to a future that is already assembling itself”) by the following reflection on the tide and time of the sort of organisations that I have been recently writing about and researching:

“Neoliberisation was designed to eliminate the various strains of democratic socialism and libertarian communism that bubbled up in so many places during the Sixties and Seventies… the growing clamour of groups seeking to take control of their own lives portends a long overdue  return to a modernity that capital just can’t deliver” (K-Punk, pp. 615-6)

This dovetails with the comments made by influential improvisers of 1970 vintage, regarding the formation of the Musicians’ Co-operative: guitarist Derek Bailey opined that “there were these moves to take control. It was a bit of a thing at the time, ‘do your own thing’”; bassist/composer Barry Guy described “self-help groups trying to find collective ways to plan concerts”. These are micro-examples of the collectivist urge, but it’s interesting to hear echoes, in Bailey’s comment, of the Brexit mantra of Control (maybe they were channeling William Burroughs here?)

It is ironic that both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are almost certainly the ultimate neo-liberals, coming as they both do from a world of ‘unearned’ privilege and wealth, and doubly ironic that they have presented themselves, and been accepted, as ‘candidates of change’ (just as Margaret Thatcher did forty long years ago). I’d love to have read a Mark Fisher analysis of the Jeremy Corbyn ‘project’ and yet another subsequent defeat of the Left, but his previously unpublished 2016 blog ‘Mannequin Challenge’ held the following words:

“The one perennial problem for the revolutionary left is that it doesn’t have the same recourse to reassuring fantasies, the same appeal to a restored past, with which to leaven the leap into the unknown” (page 610). My wife Jackie has long opined that one of the (many) reasons Corbyn was routed one year ago is that he appeared to ‘diss’ England’s achievements and aspirations, as well as casting the ‘working class’ as ‘victims’ - most people resent being portrayed as victims, a notion perceived as being promoted by the media-disant ‘woking class’ of north London and environs. The Tories eventually ‘owned’ the Brexit shit show, but what did Labour promote? Keir Starmer faces the same challenge of self-definition, and it would be so great to have Mark Fisher’s take on all this.

Mark’s writing on mental health and illness were also illuminating, and deserving of another blog at least; the current crisis in these areas demand an explicator who has ‘been there and done it’ (without appearing to be too flippant here). He will continue to be much missed.

Mark Fisher: 4 Years Is A Long Time,   Part One

The influential critic and blogger Mark Fisher took his own life 4 years ago, in January 2017. Much has changed since then - Mark largely missed the short peak and long slow demise of the Corbyn and Trump epi-phenomena, and the ghastly and costly final victory of Brexit, for example. The reductio ad absurdum of a Boris Johnson premiereship. The truly cost of globalisation = the Coronavirus pandemic. The small lights at the tunnel-end of a Biden victory and the manufacture of vaccines. (It’s a crying shame there isn’t a vaccine for Trumpism). 

Mark would no doubt have recognised that much of this ‘eventmanship’ represented here is a final flowering of the opposition to what he named ‘capitalist realism’ i.e the notion that neo-liberalism is the unavailable  end point  for societal organisation, “the end of history” as Francis Fukuyama famously described it. (I’ve always been amazed at how this idiotic comment has ever been taken seriously, to be frank, but Mark F. would probably have observed that this is just one example of how the neo–libs have gotten control of the narrative.) Although much of K-Punk, the collection of his writings from 2004-2016) seems cautiously optimistic, the sheer fact of his suicide at that particular time does make one wonder whether he ultimately despaired at the idea of any hope either for himself or for us all. Ironically he was correct is his feeling that “the center cannot hold” (as witnessed with the defat of Hilary Clinton in 2016), and the rise of the alt-right and Trumpism/Johnsonism is testament to this. People are well pissed off at neo-liberalism and want change - unfortunately so many see ‘populist’ leaders as the agent to achieve this.

One reason for this particular blog, apart from the coincidence of his month of death is some comments that Mark made about ‘collectivism’, in terms of its potential links to the subject of my recent research into cooperatives and collectives in the 60s and 70s in the UK. From our current position, these “new forms of belongings”, the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’, seem far away, what with the interpersonal atomisation caused by Covid 19 and the geopolitical isolation following in the wake of ‘Break-sick’, bur Mark’s vision of a more hopeful and less individualistic society, expressed periodically in the book’s pages, is not yet totally extinguished, however grim things may appear presently.

To be continued…

Exit 2020: Second Part

My paltry four gigs of 2020 have been described elsewhere in these blogs: the great Dominic Lash 40th and Steve Beresford 70th birthday celebrations, a London Improvisers’ Orchestra post-Covid distance-regulator, and a Butcher/Sanders/Edwards Trio improv-fest. All have become memorable because of their sheer whatness in this most what?ness of a year.

I’ve been listening to some of the Wire end-of-year recommendations, and have sadly come away somewhat underwhelmed, but am immensely cheered by the appearance at NUMBER 4, in the magazine’s chart by none other than Bob Dylan, with his Rough and Rowdy Ways, another blog-worthy entry of several months back. The sheer fact that an Caucasian 80-year old ‘legend’ (first album released in November, 1961) can figure so high up in such a self-consciously ‘radical’ music publication is worthy of note; even more noteworthy is that the album fully deserves this recognition. No other artist of Dylan’s provenance can approach this achievement. Neil Young? Feeeeerget it!

I’ve given Fiona Apple. Moor Mother, Beatrice Dillon, and Duma a go (these seem to be among the names that float Wire’s boat in 2020). It must be my age, but I felt that “there is nothing much to see/hear here”, little that ‘promised joy’, a whittling-down process that left little to be excited about for 2021. Dillon’s album (she is Wire’s number one artist) seems to consist of sub-Autechre beats (the Rochdale duo’s two albums this year also seem a fall-away from their incredible 2000s peak, however approachable they now are); the VERY trendy Moor Mother offers decent free jazz material that bears comparison with the Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln material of circa 1960; the duo neophyte Duma seem to offer little other fodder to that that Venereology put forward 25 years ago (all macho, male ‘transgressions’ in a drum machine battering of hostile ‘gestures’, so blokey and comfortable ); and Fiona Apple (Guardian’s ‘Album of the Year’) imho suffers in the long shadow of PJ Harvey (who is so missed, now that the likes of Apple and St. Vincent have been gradually  foregrounded). PJ’s perfect storm of abrasiveness and tenderness is in danger of being sidelined, as Apple’s similar ‘paucity of product’ is currently being noted and celebrated.

My kids tell me that I’m missing so much, and I know that they are right, but I can’t shake the feeling that the Emperor has new modern clothes. But maybe that is inevitable, given the now middle-aged formats of both rock and electronica (both inevitably clothed in new guises, such as EDM) - Autechre’s PLUS reminds me of Cluster, for Pete’s sake! (Pete Shelley?) Is this the inevitable fate of a man who has been following ‘popular’ music since 1970, and who finds himself in a Covid-related Hall of Mirrors?

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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.