Anger is an Energy

Anger is an Energy: My Life UncensoredAnger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored by John Lydon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book takes us on a journey from Lydon’s difficult Irish family upbringing in North London, his take on the trials and tribulations of the Sex Pistols era, through the making of PiL albums. Its colloquial style reads as if it has been transcripted directly to the page from a long series of chats between Lydon and (ghost writer?) Andrew Perry down the local pub. This style, of course, reads like Lydon speaks, so it is quite successful in that it sounds like it is coming straight from the horse’s mouth.

The Pistols and PiL front man doesn’t hold back on those he feels have wronged him (particularly Malcolm McLaren). He then goes on to say he never bears a grudge, which is just one example of Lydon’s somewhat contradictory nature. However, there’s also plenty of surprises, including some of the names he gets on with.

What comes across strongly is Lydon’s desire to move forward and embrace new challenges, both in and out of music, rather than living off his 70’s and 80’s glory. It’s worth remembering that Never Mind the Bollocks was released almost forty years ago (!), and understandable that Lydon gets frustrated at still being defined by his twenty-year-old self.

Although the first half of the book kept me well entertained, at over 500 pages, it is too long for my liking. It digresses into a mishmash of stuff of limited interest – to me anyway. There is some insight into John the family man, and his film and TV work, but basically some chapters could do with more editing. At times you have a feeling that you are listening to someone repeat themselves down the boozer after too many sherbets. But there is enough interesting and surprising content to make it worth a read if you want to know more about the man or his music, beyond the oft-told adventures of the Sex Pistols.

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M Train

M TrainM Train by Patti Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are looking for wild tales of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll then best look elsewhere. Patti Smith’s drug of choice nowadays appears to be coffee. She can’t get enough of the stuff and consumes it with a passion in her favourite cafes, while contemplating life and writing about art and culture.

This, her second memoir, offers snapshots of her life in places as diverse as Iceland, Mexico and Japan. M Train, is a transient and dreamlike collection of thoughts and shards of memory. It is a travel book of sorts, with Smith on a mission to honour her heroes who include Rimbaud, Plath, Genet, Kahlo, Murakami and Mishima.

Holed up in hotel rooms, Smith loses herself in her passion for TV crime series like Cracker and The Killing. M Train is also a book about loss in a constantly changing world. She recalls precious moments with her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. She charts the progress of her dream home by the sea at Rockaway Beach, and the destruction wreaked upon the area by Hurricane Sandy – life doesn’t always go to plan.

M Train is an excellent read that has more in common with the hybrid literary work of WG Sebald than with your average rock star autobiography. This is a journey you don’t want to end.

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Edina Street

Edina Street, which began as a sequel to the novel Countries of the World, has evolved into a stand-alone screenplay. I’m still in the process of writing it. I’ve been running some of it by the members of the Inverness Playwriters for a while now. I hope to perform some of it with the drama students from the UHI (University of the Highlands and Islands) later this month. In the meantime, here’s an extract to give you a flavour of it.

Day. Donnie is seen walking down a busy Edinburgh street. He is listening to Waiting Room by Fugazi on a Walkman. He goes into the DSS office and speaks to the receptionist. He goes up in the lift to the third floor. He takes a ticket from a machine on the wall. Number 202. He takes a seat. Nods at those around him. People are smoking. Somebody coughs.

DONNIE (loudly).

Bit chilly the day, eh?

An old woman sizes him up. A man, wearing a woollen hat, takes a seat next to her. As Donnie listens to his music, the number on board flicks up from 180 to 181. He rolls himself a cigarette. 181 changes to 182. Donnie looks up, sighs and exits into the lift. He goes back to the ground floor. He goes outside and lights his cigarette. He walks down a close and looks in the window of a record shop. He pings the roll-up away and goes in. Behind the counter, they’ve got stacks of albums in white sleeves. Singles are suspended from the ceiling in trains of cellophane. He flicks through some records then goes to counter. (Music finishes as Donnie removes his headphones).

DONNIE.

Alright, mate. Got any Squirrel Bait?

SHOP ASSISTANT.

Emm. Not at the moment I don’t think. If there’s any it’ll be over there in the hardcore section.

DONNIE.

Cheers.

He goes over for a look as the shop assistant serves a customer. Donnie comes back.

DONNIE (continues)

Nothing doing. (pause) Oh, by the way. I’ve got a mate looking to get rid of some shit…

Do you buy second hand records?

SHOP ASSISTANT.

Aye, if they’re in decent nick.

DONNIE.

Sound. I’ll let him know then. Cheers.

SHOP ASSISTANT.

No bother.

Donnie exits.

 

Back in the DSS office. Donnie Goes up in the lift. The number on the board is 204.

DONNIE.

Fuck!

The old woman gives him a dirty look.

DONNIE.

Sorry, missus.

He goes straight up to a booth, where the man in the woollen hat is being attended to.

DONNIE.

Excuse me a minute.

MAN IN HAT.

Hey, who do you think you are?

DONNIE.

Sorry. What number you got, pal?

MAN IN HAT

None of your business. Wait your turn.

DONNIE (to young female clerk behind desk).

I’ve got 202 here.

CLERK.

Sorry, we did call it out.

DONNIE.

Tell you what. I’ll wait till after you’ve finished with Benny from Crossroads here. Fair’s fair, eh?

MAN IN HAT.

A comedian, eh?

DONNIE.

I’m not laughing.

CLERK.

I’m afraid you’ve missed your turn.

DONNIE.

What? You’re joking. I was here before him.

MAN IN HAT.

No, you wasnae.

DONNIE.

I fucking was. I only went out for some fresh air.

CLERK.

Mind your language, please.

DONNIE.

Hey. Chill, Miss. Just saying I was here before him.

CLERK.

We’re very busy here. People are waiting…

DONNIE.

Tell me about it.

CLERK.

Take another ticket, please.

DONNIE.

Do you know how long that’s gonna take?

CLERK.

I’m not going to argue with you. I’m dealing with this gentleman…

DONNIE.

So I have to take another ticket?

MAN IN HAT.

You heard.

DONNIE.

Stay out of it.

CLERK.

Can I get your name, please?

DONNIE.

Mine?

CLERK.

Yes.

DONNIE.

I’ll tell you if you call me next. Deal?

CLERK.

You missed your turn. If you don’t take a seat, I’ll have to call security.

Donnie gives ‘Benny’ the stare. He throws his ticket on the floor and marches out. The old woman (still sitting) looks at him disapprovingly.

 

 

Blackstar

Late on Sunday evening, I played Blackstar again. I also did something I rarely do these days. I played music in the living room in front of my mother. She was born in January 1947 – the same month as David Bowie. I asked her if she knew who this was. At first, she struggled. Saying only that the opening track (Blackstar) was ‘very strange’. (She had yet to see the video). After about thirty seconds, something told her it was Bowie. Maybe the voice, I don’t know.

Blackstar_album_cover Just short of halfway through this ten-minute opener, the middle eight section kicks in with “Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside…” I think it’s only at this point that many people would clearly recognise this as Bowie’s work.

I’d played the album a few times since Friday, having received an MP3 download in advance of the ordered CD.  I first heard Bowie songs like Jean Genie, Rebel Rebel or Space Oddity on the radio, when I was barely out of nappies. Yet, forty odd years later, this is the only artist I can think of whose music I would anticipate hearing, and buying, on the day of its release.

The CD dropped through the door on Monday morning, about half an hour after I read of his death, on the internet. I opened up the box to find a funereal black sleeve with a recent looking photo of Bowie, alongside an image of stars glowing in the cosmos. What the fuck? Bowie is able to surprise and freak you out even when he’s gone.

I used to be a fan of 1970’s Bowie. I say ‘used to be’, because for many years I thought his career had gone downhill after Scary Monsters (1980). I often said that to people. But I was wrong. There was a bit of a lull in the mid to late 80’s. I am not overly fond of the Let’s Dance album (1983), although there were a few good singles on it. The same goes for the follow up, Tonight, which is a weak album by his standards.

After that came Tin Machine. I didn’t like them either at the time. I do now. In fact, over the last few years, I’ve radically revised my opinion about his music, post Scary Monsters. Reflecting on this point just 24 hours after his death, I’m glad I’ve taken the time to do that.

It’s a journey that I expect many more people will make now. I’m ‘old school’ in the sense that I like to listen to music in the album format. I tend to think of, and measure, the quality of music that way. So my Bowie highlights of the last 20 years include Outside, Heathen, Reality, and his parting shots The Next Day and Blackstar. Yes I know, that’s most of the albums.

I came to realise that David Bowie was so much more than Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane or The Thin White Duke, frozen in a colourful 70’s time warp. Like all great artists, he was forever looking forward to his next project. Amazingly, he was able to release a fresh and modern sounding album (and a couple of very radical videos), while on his death bed.

There may have been some time to prepare, but seriously, who else could achieve that? Of course, all this is just my opinion. Anyone who has known me for any length of time will know that I’m biased – Bowie has long been my favourite musical artist, bar none.

I always feel, when a new Bowie album comes out, that it takes time to digest whether it is really that great or not. Right now, Blackstar seems very good indeed. Really innovative and multi-genre. It’s absolutely light years ahead of the kind of stuff his contemporaries like Bob Dylan or Rod Stewart are doing now. In fact, it sounds groundbreaking. My favourite tracks are probably Lazarus and Dollar Days. I like all the songs but find most of the title track pretty disturbing.

Time will tell if this album is one of his best. At the moment, I’m still trying to take in that there won’t be the anticipation of another new Bowie studio album to look forward to.

Big Day Coming

The focus here is very much on Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, the husband and wife team at the heart of the New Jersey band, and their music of course. Starting with a fairly extensive trawl through the couple’s family backgrounds, Big Day Coming moves through the band’s long career, with chapters often built around the making of a specific album. Kaplan and Hubley made their way through well over a dozen bass players before settling on James McNew in 1991. He has also been ever present since then.

There is some insight into the changing (independent) music industry over the last 20-30 years, but the book may be of limited interest to non YLT fanatics. Many other bands that have come into contact with the Tengos feature, among them contemporaries like Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, but not in great detail.

Not only was it a good read but, armed with new information, it gave me the chance to spend an enjoyable month or two listening to Yo La Tengo’s extensive back catalogue (fourteen studio albums from 1986-2015, as well as a penchant for cover versions and new takes on their own songs).

I first heard YLT when I got hold of a tape of their second album, New Wave Hot Dogs, at the tail end of the 80’s. So much of their subsequent work passed me by for too long. But with hindsight, it’s hard to think of anyone who has put together a more consistent and impressive catalogue over the last 30 years, and this remarkable trio are still doing good things.

 

Head On/Repossessed

In the first installment of his memoirs, Julian Cope recollects the Liverpool (post) punk scene, revolving around Eric’s club. Literally just across the street from the world famous Cavern, this is where the seeds of the Teardrop Explodes germinated. jc

In 1976, he left his Midlands home for college on Merseyside and soon formed his first band – The Crucial Three – with Ian McCulloch (then known as ‘Duke’) and Pete Wylie. As the name suggests, the group took themselves very seriously from the start. But, convinced of their own talent and driven by ambition and the right connections, all of them would go on to appear on Top of the Pops over the next few years: Mac with Echo & the Bunnymen and Wylie with (The Mighty) Wah!

Others on that Liverpool scene included Pete ‘You Spin Me Round’ Burns, Lightning Seed and producer Ian Broudie, Siouxsie and the Banshees drummer Budgie, and Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford, who would later form one of the biggest selling British bands of the mid-80’s, Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

The Teardrop Explodes burned out shortly after a couple of albums and top twenty hits in ’80-81. Head On contains plenty excess, with the band and their entourage spiralling out of control on tour and Cope following Eurovision winners Bucks Fizz onto the Top of the Pops stage to perform Passionate Friend, while on acid. The memoir has plenty accounts of his drug consumption and subsequent experiences, as Cope became a sort of Syd Barrett figure for the 80’s generation. Yet, it is well written and really entertaining, with short chapters that make you want to have just one more blast.

The second volume, Repossesed, takes us up to the end of the 80’s and the recording of albums such as My Nation Underground and Skellington. Cope seems frustrated by his portrayal in the music press as an acid casualty, but did he not play up to this reputation? His second solo album was called ‘Fried’ and the sleeve had a photo of Cope crawling on all fours below a giant a turtle shell, next to a toy truck with the word ‘Fried’ emblazoned on its side.

The truck itself would be abandoned in the undergrowth of the home near Tamworth he ‘retired to’ in his mid twenties after the wheels came off the Explodes juggernaut. His obsession with toy car collecting is well explored in Repossessed, which is subtitled ‘Shamanic Depressions in Tamworth and London (1983-89)’.

On the whole, I prefer this second volume. It’s more personal, far from a rock star biography at times,  as Julian descends from the heights and tries to rebuild his life and career in rural Staffordshire. Yes, there is still some touring(the odd mad stint in Japan), tales of drug exploits and groupees, but much of the time it’s about taking stock in the Midlands, with his American wife, or hanging out with close friends.

Cope is able to gradually get back on track and keep making music, regardless of whether it sells on a grand scale or not. In fact, his artistic integrity and uncompromising attitude were often a bone of contention with record companies. He claims to have pulled the plug on his song East Easy Rider being used in a Levi’s ad. As ever, this kind of book gives the author the chance to slag off those they have fallen out with (Mac from the Bunnymen or ex-Teardrop band members in this case), but Cope comes across as one of the more intriguing and amusing personalities of the era. In these personal memoirs, he is always willing to share his knowledge and passion for leftfield music and other dimensions with those who want to go along on the trip.

Find out more at his excellent music website: https://www.headheritage.co.uk/

Free Nelson Mandela

Another snapshot from Edina Street, the ongoing sequel to Countries of the World. The central characters Donnie and Lexo (aka The Claw) ponder the release of Nelson Mandela…

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“Is that him now, Mandela?”

“Aye. Looks a bit wobbly on his feet.”

“So would you like, after twenty one years in captivity.”

“It’s longer than that.”

“I’m referring to the Special AKA, Donnie son. Free Nelson Mandela and all that, ken?”

“I know. That song wasn’t out last week though, was it? Try twenty seven.”

“Aye, you’ll be right enough.”

“All those bands who played Sun City must be feeling like right numpties now, eh?”

“What do you mean, like?”

“Queen. Status Quo. Rod Stewart… Playing in South Africa to white only audiences a few years back.”

“Oh?”

“Paul Simon too. Mind o Graceland?”

“Is that no where Elvis lived?”

“It was, aye. But Paul Simon went to South Africa to make his Graceland record. Got all these local musicians in.”

“Gied them work then, did he no? Brought them over on tour. Gave them their big break. ..”

“Aye, that’s what some folk say. But he broke the boycott, didn’t he?”

“Ah, well. Tell me this then. Why was it called Graceland if it was made in South Africa?”

“No fucking idea. That’s Paul Simon for ya, eh? The guy who wanted us to call him Al.”

“Aye. Weirdo.”

The North (And Almost Everything In it)

The North: (And Almost Everything In It)The North: by Paul Morley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This broad ranging examination of Northern England is subtitled ‘And Almost Everything In It’. At just short of 600 pages, Paul Morley makes a fair stab at including all he can find, or stumble across on the internet, that’s relevant to his own personal concept of ‘The North’.

But this lengthy work is a fine achievement. It held my interest throughout; quite a feat given the variety of style and content. Minor gripes are that starting the book with a bit of antiquarian history of the north seems overly ambitious, if not grandiose, and the section dealing with the author’s school days was less than fascinating. But perhaps the latter did relate to the run-of-the mill spirit of the area and therefore the work itself.

However, Morley adeptly weaves his own personal memoir into the bigger picture of The North as he searches for his own sense of northern identity. He grew up there (in Stockport). But his family roots are more southern and he has spent most of his adult life in London. This adds to the outsider quality of someone who doesn’t quite fit but can still easily blend in with the environment and who knows what he’s talking about without taking an ‘I’m more northern than thee’ attitude.

Meanwhile, the reader learns a lot about the people and places that have made ‘The North’ what it is. Where it begins and ends is open to debate as Morley recognises it is as much a mental space as a geographical one.

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Sojourn in Mantua

Photo by Steven Porter. © 2014
Photo by Steven Porter. © 2014

A guy gets off the train from Verona and immediately puts his suitcase down. It’s of the size you could bring on a flight as hand luggage. He unzips it. He takes out his jacket. Under that are about twenty cans of Pepsi and a few of Fanta or some other brand of orange. He rakes around, as if trying to locate something else, but there’s nothing except fizzy drinks. He takes out a can of Pepsi, opens it, and walks off towards the station exit. The can appears to be leaking.

What I Read in 2013

This post is about what I’ve been reading rather than books published this year, at least in most cases.

But let’s start with my big disappointment of 2013 – David Peace’s Red or Dead. A novel about Bill Shankly’s Liverpool? Can’t go wrong with that I thought, especially having enjoyed The Damned United. But the repetitive prose goes a step too far here. At  times it looks as if it has been cut and pasted into different chapters in order to go over stuff yet again. This eventually wore me down and I didn’t even get to the half-time oranges with what must be one of the longest novels ever written about football. For me, the author only succeeded in making the life and career of one of football’s most colourful characters appear tedious. I’d rather read a Shankly biography than plough through the rest of it.

Speaking of biographies, I’ve read a few this year. Some People Are Crazy: The John Martyn Story is a great read with John Neil Munro providing a fine insight into the life of one of my favourite musicians. I suspect that many who knew Martyn would not talk well of him as a person. Munro does not overlook this, but in order to get permission to work on the book about the late singer/songwriter, there may have been a limit to what he could include. Like me, Munro is clearly a fan of the artist and so the focus is rightly on his career and music.

Morrissey’s autobiography, which I wrote a full review of recently, is another very entertaining read related to the music industry. And one interesting biography that had passed under my radar was The Tailor of Inverness. Matthew Zajak’s tribute to his Polish father was initially a successful play but transfers well into this non-fiction work, as Zajak uncovers a few surprises about his dad’s past during World War Two and finds some unknown relatives along the way.

In terms of self-published releases, I enjoyed Brendan Gisby’s The Burrymen War, a tale of sectarianism and strange rituals on the East coast of Scotland, while Stuart Ayris’ novella The Buddhas of Borneo was an original and unorthodox piece of travel writing. All Dogs are Blue by  the late Brazilian author Rodrigo Souza Leao’s was another oddball novella that does unusual things with language.

Unexpected bonuses of the year, as I had never heard of the book or writer in either case until friends gave or mentioned them to me, were Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test and The Songs of Manolo Escobar by Carlos Alba. There is a full review of the the latter here. The former is a  piece of investigative journalism with some intriguing case studies that seems to conclude that we are all touched by madness to a degree and that psychopathy of some sort is never far away.

Finally, my current reading includes Anne Quinn’s novel Berg, from the 1960’s. It’s quite odd and although short it’s not the easiest of reads due to the blur between what is actually happening and what the protagonist is imagining or fantasisng about. But I intend to persist with it. I’m also still about halfway through The Godfather. It’s always interesting to compare book and film versions, but I like to go against the grain and find examples of movies that are better than the novels, and I reckon this is one of them. Until next year. Cheers.