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Blue Cheer December 22, 2010

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing.

Weather, work and excessive socialising have deterred me from dallying in the blogosphere lately… And now it’s almost bloody Christmas, the weather has ironically become so bad that it’s screwed my plans to return to London for more ceaseless merriment and so here I am bored toiling and with a gap to fill. And happily enough, Christmas and the crap weather are the two cultural crutches I must kick away first.

I’ve never been a fan of either, really. The imminent, alleged religious celebration has long rankled for this card-carrying atheist appalled by the commercial pressure it now invokes for us all to over-spend and over-indulge in mawkish sentimentality and hi-cholesterol food’n’drink. And yet otherwise kindred spirits cave-in a few weeks before the slush-fest actually engulfs them and then scold me for some kind of joie de vivre denial, citing December 25th as a precious opportunity for family and loved ones to eat, drink and argue together amidst piles of presents they neither wanted nor need.

As for me… well I’ve actually spent a few perfectly happy Xmases on my tod catching up on my reading, taking long walks in the hills and downing much remedial Benedictine. And also the odd one with other similarly inclined humbuggers who just took drugs and drank fine wines ‘til we collapsed in a totally tinsel-free environment. But then… well read on my jaundiced friends, read on.

SNOWY WASTRELS      And talking of slush-fests – which I was – any Brit reading this will know that we’ve had almost Two Weeks of Wintery Hell (™ The Daily Star), which shut down most of our airports, motorways and encouraged the oil companies to rocket the prices of heating oil. Much hand-wringing from both the (in)appropriate govt. ministers and transport moguls who pathetically admit they weren’t ready for it because we had such a hard winter last time and couldn’t possibly expect another one in the next, ooh, 25 years. WAKE UP TO CLIMATE CHANGE YOU BASTARDS, which is what one ex-govt. scientific advisor uttered in slightly more restrained language earlier this week before letting on that like their advice on downgrading the illegality of cannabis, the official advisory panel he resigned from – along with four others – was ignored. Makes you weep, and indeed there might be some weeping, to say nothing of teeth-gnashing, if the traumatised transport infrastructure prevents me to getting to London for ‘Cosytide’ (as one individual I know of mysteriously calls it). More on which, yeah, later.

THE CAPTAIN GOES DOWN       Of course the biggest and saddest news of the week, indeed month, was the death of Don Van Vliet, a/k/a Capt. Beefheart at 69. I first had my ears scrambled by the good Captain and his extraordinary Magic Band at Frank Freeman’s School of Dancing (yes, it really was) in Kidderminster in 1968, bought all his albums before and since but even that mind-fuck of a gig was surpassed by a majestic brace of performances on consecutive nights at L.A’s Whiskey A-Go-Go in 1980.  I still regularly punish his vinyl outings (the re-mastered CDs are, to my taste, too antiseptic), my favourite being not the undoubtedly ground-breaking Trout Mask Replica, but 1972’s Clear Spot. This latter record, produced by Ted Templeman – a far better knob-twiddler than Trout Mask’s Zappa – exhibits the band’s fantastic rhythmic contrapuntuality (a word I just made up, but you know what I’m saying) within the bluesy context that spawned Don’s entire oeuvre (a word I didn’t make up but which I like to use ‘cause it make me sound posh). But then I’m also a fan of the Grateful Dead…

He was of course a famously abrasive and willfully obscure personality and for these reasons alone I declined an opportunity to interview him when I was what I laughingly call a professional music journalist, but truth was (also) that I was just so in awe of him that my queries would’ve quickly descended to the “Why are you so wonderful, Mr God?” variety these days beloved of Heat and, well, Q magazine.

The late, monumentally great, Don Van Vliet, a/k/a Capt. Beefheart

I left that instead to my erstwhile colleague on L.A. Weekly, Christine McKenna, who went off to visit him in his desert home where he’d already embarked on his second career as an abstract painter and came back genuinely disturbed by the experience.

Yes, it’s a cliché I’ve sadly had to resort to before in these scrawls, but we will not see, and certainly not hear his like again, and if you doubt this go out and buy any of his albums (except possibly Ice Cream For Crow).

AND FINALLY…      What else? Well after bitching about having had no work to speak of for exactly two years this Xmas, within 72 hours a coupla weeks ago I got commissioned to write a book, produce a series of magazine supplements and scribble several grown-up features. So I don’t, after all, have to sell the Lancia! Even better, this now gives me an excuse to whine about overwork and stress, the latter of which I had a dummy run at whilst appearing in this year’s Presteigne Players’ theatrical triumph, Les Mouserables, as a health’n’safety obsessed, er, mouse who joins a rodent uprising to defeat the local Fat Cats. As ever, Mary Compton’s clever, wry script had a tartly topical political subtext and tons of good natured local pokes and stirring songs.

Am I Mouse or Man? Oh the shame of it. (Pic: Alex Ramsay)

And after the first, second and third night nerves, a jolly good time was had by all involved, and even the audience I’m told. Which brings me to my own Xmas arrangements and despite all my earlier protestations I also, as almost usual, will ultimately be surrendering to the inevitable and having a fabulous, self-indulgent weekend with friends and family.

I hope you will too.

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I, Philistine? December 2, 2010

Posted by markswill in Uncategorized.

Okay, having got my Indian Summer out of the way let’s get back to reality. Or at least my own bent version of  it. And I fear it may be terminally bent, as in not according with the high aesthetic standards I am hugely respected for. Thing is, I’m getting a bit worried about my artistic and cultural tastes and like it or not, I’m going to share my anxiety with you.

First off, I think it’s a given that as we get older we become more interested in art in its many forms. For me it’s always been movies, music and increasingly in the last couple of decades, traipsing around galleries and swotting up on the visual arts. Major shows at the big London galleries both ancient and modern have attracted my custom and city breaks to the Euro capitals done ditto and this, coupled with a near-compulsion to see every other movie that comes out based on provenance if nothing else, has filled up the time between gainful employment, eating, sleeping and relentlessly burning up fossil fuels. And then there’s books. Since the late nineties – and close personal friends may understand the darker reasons behind this – I’ve also had at least two and sometimes as many as three books on the go simultaneously, a reflection not so much of my immense literary appetite as my butterfly mind.

But culturally nourishing as though this may sound, just recently it’s all started to go tits-up. Fr’instance the last few films I’ve seen have all be dogs to me, and this despite the glowing reviews by generally respected reviewers (i.e. the one’s that aren’t 13 year-olds parachuted in by impressionable editors desperately hoping to snare the youth ticket). Examples: Mike Leigh’s Another Year (sentimental tosh with a plot full of holes and loose ends); Uncle Boonmie Who Can Recall His Past Lives (badly lit, shot and scripted sub-film school fantasy porridge); Winter’s Bone (gratuitously bleak Ozark Mountain crystal meth family drama); The Kids Are Alright (the flimsiest of family dramas only green-lit because the parents were lesbians). Apart from critics falling over themselves to outdo their peer-group’s plaudits, what all of these flics have in common are characters you could care less about and storylines amounting to sod-all.

But maybe it’s me? Maybe I’ve become cynical and insensitive, or even more so than I was before? Because it’s the same with art. Take the Glasgow Boys at the Royal Academy: a bunch of highly derivative (c/f Millet and Whistler) daubers whose relative deficits in originality and even craft were matched only by their alacrity to move onto more lucrative portraiture as soon as the pennies literally dropped. Then we have this year’s Turner candidates, and although at least there’s an actual painter up for it this time, namely Dexter Dalwood, otherwise it’s the usual pretentious assemblages of found objects, installations and arty-bollocks videos (oh, and Dalwood’s not much of a painter, either). However my worst outing this year was the British Art Now at the Saatchi, and if this truly exemplified our best  younger painters, sculptors and, oh alright, installers, then god help us. I couldn’t even bring myself to take in the latest Gaugin show at Tate Modern because I get so easily bored with his predictable self-indulgence. Indeed I’m sure my friend John James home-based summer show was a better bet if only for the simple and sad reason that although he’s been painting his highly evocative urban landscapes for three decades now, he doesn’t play the gallery game… which is why most of you haven’t heard of him. (www.johnjames.com)

White Night, St Petersburg - by John James

But I digress. Now onto books. Well since I rely more on friends’ recommendations than reviews and don’t want to upset any of them with my discursive dismissals, I shan’t list them, but only one of the dozen or so books I’ve read (and mainly failed to finish) this past few months has rocked my boat. As an aside here, I’ve just realised that digi-gizmos like the Kindle and iPad are an absolute gift to impatient readers like me, because when the downloads cost only 99p instead of a £7.99 paperback, we won’t feel so bad about giving up after 35 pages. And of course the publishing trade’ll be happy as pigs in shit because they haven’t had to print, store and distribute them. Authors, bookshops and libraries… well that’s another sorry matter.

Anyway, where I’m going with all this is here: Have I been subtly nudged into philistinism, a/k/a dumbed down, by too much exposure to the interweb? It’s a contention, already better examined by recent-ish reports, that brains can be re-wired by the way that information is fed to them online, but which I loftily thought didn’t apply to me. But in apparently failing to ‘get’ the Glasgow Boys, Uncle Boonmie, or a Ryu Murakami novel (oops, there goes discretion), maybe I now lack the necessary intellectual fortitude to try and appreciate their true cultural meaning and value? And am I alone in this?

Or maybe I’ve just become a tedious old fart too willing to slump in front of the box and watch endless repeats of Black Books?

Time will perhaps tell, but if you’re living in my neck of the woods and fancy a culturally challenging night out, and the sight of yrs. trly. proving he can neither act nor sing, the Presteigne Player’s Les Mouserables runs at the Memorial Hall on Dec 9th, 10th and 11th at 7.30pm. It’s another of writer/director Mary Compton’s unique pantos based ever-so-loosely on local characters… but with a wider topical resonance, i.e. while students revolt on the streets of our cities, underneath those streets it is the mice who are revolting against the fat cats.

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