Unfaithful Music

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing InkUnfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is at its best when Costello is recounting his family history, developing and breaking through as a songwriter and talking about his early albums and tours. His relationship with his musician father also provides some touching moments. He describes an early memory as “a perfect introduction to my life in showbusiness”. Later in the memoir, Elvis spends much of his time hobnobbing with the great and the good of popular music. “When our boy Dexter… fastened onto The Fool on the Hill and started to fret about why ‘nobody seems to like him’, his mother (Diana Krall) simply called up the author for his advice on what to tell him.” It’s a hard life when you can call up Paul McCartney for some family counselling. I lost track of Costello’s career sometime in the 90s. You may find this stuff more interesting if you have followed his recent career more closely. Frequent quoting of his own lyrics also grows rather tiresome. Some tougher editing could have slimmed down this bulky 670 page tome into a consistently engrossing read.

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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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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.


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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Morrissey Autobiography

mozBorn of Irish stock, Morrissey paints a vulgar picture of his childhood in monochrome. His recollections of his home city are as grim and northern as the sight of Ena Sharples in her hairnet. Manchester in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ was still much the same as the place that had shocked Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century. Only the presence of Top of the Pops provided ‘a rare flash of glamor in our oh so very pale lives’.

School days offered no hope, only mindless violence. Mr Coleman, the head at St Wilfred’s, was ‘convincingly old, unable to praise and his military servitude is the murdered child within’. Miss Redmond ‘will never marry and will die smelling of attics’ and Miss Dudley was a ‘sexual hoax’. One supposes these are some of the ‘belligerent ghouls’ of the Headmaster Ritual from the Meat is Murder album.

St Mary’s Secondary Modern in Stretford was no better. Just more humiliating beatings dished out to th consoling sounds of a Glam Rock soundtrack. By then, Morrissey was into T Rex, Bowie, Mott the Hoople and Roxy Music, though the latter dropped in his estimations when ‘Bryan Ferry announces that his favourite food is veal – second only to foie gras in savage cruelty’.

Literary influences include Oscar Wilde of course. AE Housman also held great appeal: ‘Housman suffered throughout his life, and therefore (and not surprisingly) his life became an unyielding attempt not to cooperate.’ But it’s film, TV and other pop culture references of the period that predominate.

In his youth, Morrissey virtually stumbled onto the set of Coronation Street only to be labelled a ‘nuisance’ by Bernard Youens (aka Stan Ogden). It wouldn’t be the last time but the incident resulted in the soon-to-be-Smith getting a part as an extra in an Edwardian drama. Though an acting career never appealed, he’d turn down the chance to appear in Emmerdale and Eastenders many years hence: ‘The most fascinating aspect of both offers is that somebody somewhere had thought it was a good idea.’

He did have a stab at writing a script for Coronation Street, but, sadly, the powers-that-be were not impressed with a finale that had Violet Carson (playing the aforementioned Ena Sharples) turn to the camera, one eyebrow arched, asking, ‘Do I really look like a fan of X-Ray Spex?’.

His world expands a little with trips to visit friends in London and then to the USA to visit his aunt, who had emigrated there. Not an opportunity that would have presented itself to many young working-class Mancunians in the mid-70’s, I reckon.

Then Punk explodes and fizzles out before one Johnny Marr turns up at the door. Since the Smiths were my favourite band at the time, this story and others from those years are familiar. But even if you’ve grown up with the music of the Smiths, there are surprises in store.

Having already lived in a haunted flat in London, a very odd incident occurs on a drive with friends up to Saddleworth Moor. It’s one of the most evocative passages in this eloquently written and absorbing book. The story is so bizarre that you can’t help but wonder if Morrissey is toying with the reader, scattering a few red herrings around and chuckling to himself.

Some time after the breakup of The Smiths, Morrissey returns again, this time with Marr, to Saddleworth Moor; the setting for the controversial Suffer Little Children from the first album. The former does not seem to understand the breakup or is just not for telling. It seems it was all down to Marr: ‘I didn’t want to ever go solo… I thought The Smiths would run for at least thirty albums.’

Yet, it all fell apart so quickly after Strangeways Here We Come – an album both Morrissey and Marr considered the band’s best. It’s time to tell the tale of throwing it away at the peak of your powers.

Harsher criticsim is reserved for supremos Geoff Travis and Tony Wilson of Rough Trade and Factory Records respectively, Siouxsie Sioux, and perhaps most surprisingly, stingy Sandie Shaw. Don’t meet your idols! But Marr comes across as a decent bloke who, in his efforts to get on with everybody, is a little too slippery and elusive for his own good at times.

Morrissey’s true nemesis is Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, who took the songwriting duo to court in 1996 and won his case for a 25% cut of band royalties. According to the vocalist, ‘Johnny and I signed to Rough Trade as the Smiths’. He insists that 10% was the figure agreed with the additional members.

Although interesting to hear Morrissey’s perspective, the trial section gets quite tedious and for a time descends into a lengthy rant against High Court judge John Weeks (who found in Joyce’s favour). Even the quality of the prose seems to go out the window here. It was the only part of the book that bored me and takes up way more space in the story than it should as Morrissey repeats himself over and over to vent his spleen and hammer home his points. He dealt more creatively with this episode on his Maladjusted album. But the court case narrative does have its moments as Moz’s bitchiness reaches new heights in comedy and melodrama: ‘By now, Marr, Rourke and Joyce have magically transformed into the Beverly Sisters, each chanting how that awful Morrissey has destroyed their lives….’

After the decision was reached “Joyce Iscariot raced to the press caped in victory: ‘It’s not about money,’ he kept saying, which told everyone that it had purely and absolutely been about nothing but money. .. Johnny’s crime is that he watched it all and said nothing, hoping to avoid the noose already tight around my own neck…”

‘Sickened, I left England. The good life is out there somewhere…’

He been fortunate enough (or unlucky?) to work with some of his idols: Bowie is more than an acquaintance, ex –Spider Mick Ronson produced Your Arsenal shortly before his death, and Moz helped revive the career of the New York Dolls. Kirsty McColl was another dear friend and he seems quite close to Chrissie Hynde, who Marr worked with briefly in the Pretenders after the Smiths split.

Some of the people Morrissey gets on with, or respects, are surprising, including Elton John and Morten and the rest of those ‘inherently decent’ lads from Aha! There’s over two decades of solo work to delve into, as opposed to the handful of years the Smiths were together. Now understanding a little better the background to all that, and realising how much I have lost track of it all, has led me to revisit the back catalogue and discover many gems among consistently good albums. He’d only just started something he couldn’t finish. But that’s another story…

The Songs of Manolo Escobar

The Songs of Manolo EscobarThe Songs of Manolo Escobar by Carlos Alba
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was an unexpected bonus. I’d never heard of the book or even the writer. But it was given to me by someone who knows my tastes. At first glance I thought it might be a biography. In fact, it’s a novel narrated by Antonio Noguera whose from a Spanish family living in Glasgow. The author turns out to be a successful journalist-cum-novelist from a similar background to his protagonist.

Alba has neatly constructed a work of fiction that is both very entertaining and convincing, with a three part non-linear narrative which flits between Glasgow, London and Spain. Given that it spans much of the second half of the twentieth century, the Spanish Civil War almost inevitably weaves its way into the storyline. Faced with an ailing marriage and the illness of a close relative, Antonio returns to Lleida province, in Catalonia, to try to find out more about his family history.

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The World is Ever Changing

roegThis is not your typical autobiography. For anyone familiar with Roeg’s film work (Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, etc) that may not come as any great surprise. He’s never been keen on presenting his art in a straightforward and chronological fashion. For that reason, the only other autobiography I’ve read that sprung to mind while I was reading this was Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. Likewise, this is more a series of thoughts, incidents and events that are only very loosely connected, if at all. Roeg’s chapters are built around aspects of film: image, sound, script, directing, etc. He does talk about what motivates and inspires him, but not a great deal about his private life. Perhaps he thinks that would be a bit boring and credit should be given for that. He comes across as someone more interested in life (and film) than of talking himself up. On the other hand, this makes him quite an evasive character. So it might disappoint anyone looking for a no-holds-barred type of autobiography, full of celebrity scandal. But he does tell us how he blew the chance to work with Marlon Brando, and without any lingering sense of bitterness. There’s also a very curious kind of spiritual experience mentioned towards the end of this concise book. I really enjoyed it. Some might consider it too brief an encounter, but it’s hard to find fault with it. Leave them wanting more… Be brave… Look now.

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Sputnik Sweetheart

Sputnik-SweetheartWorld of Books has reached the landmark of 100 posts. I’ve decided to celebrate it with a review of a short novel by one of my favourite contemporary writers. Sputnik Sweetheart is only the second or third novel I’ve read by Haruki Murakami. But I’ve seen enough to be convinced that he is one of the best novelists around today and I intend to read a lot more of his work.

In some ways, he reminds me a little of Richard Brautigan; an author I loved in my younger days. The American was also influenced by Japanese writing and culture, so it may be that they share some of the same influences. Oddly enough, Brautigan even had a book of stories called The Tokyo-Montana Express. Both can be considered counter-culture writers of sorts because Murakami rejects the work of some of Japan’s literary heavyweights (such as Yukio Mishima) in favour of Western literature.

However, the similarities I see between Murakami and Brautigan come down to two things: the deceptive simplicity of the writing and the use of strange and original metaphors. Sputnik Sweetheart includes similies such as, “I drew the curtain aside, and there was the moon, floating in the sky like some pale, clever orphan” or “Imagine The Greatest Hits of Bobby Darin minus Mack The Knife.That’s what my eyes would be like without you.” Wonderfully imaginative metaphors rich with poetry make a welcome change from tired old clichés.

Sputnik Sweetheart is narrated by a young teacher known simply as K. He is in love with a female friend called Samire, who in turn has fallen for Miu, a woman who runs her own wine business. Unexpected events lead to all temporarily leaving Japan for a Greek Island where one of them goes missing. The book’s intriguing title comes from the fact that Samire is an aspiring writer who is fond of Kerouac, and Miu, being a little older, confuses the word ‘Sputnik’ with ‘Beatnik’.

I should also mention this is a translation. That might seem like a statement of the obvious, but many people read novels without giving it a second thought and don’t consider the implications. In other words, we rely on someone else to give us a true flavor of what Murakami is about. It is only thanks to translators like Philip Gabriel that we are able to enter into the magical world of this Japanese genius.

Liverpool Basque

The Liverpool BasqueThe Liverpool Basque by Helen Forrester
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a novel about Manuel Echaniz, now an old man in Canada, looking back on his life. As the title suggests, he was of Basque stock and brought up in Liverpool.

My main criticism of this book is that although there is likely to be a lot of sadness and death involved in the thoughts of someone so old, the Grim Reaper’s axe seems to be swinging relentlessly throughout. Granted, these immigrants had no easy life but perhaps Helen Forrester could have injected a bit more humour, even of the black variety, into proceedings.

That said, I would not describe this novel as harrowing. And it has many qualities, not least of which it is well written and careful structured, albeit a little conservative in its prose for my own tastes. There’s a nice balance of female andn male character perspectives, too.

This family saga is a convincing portrayal of an immigrant community in the first half of the twentieth century. And there are some glimpses into Basque culture and history. The way that historical events are weaved into the tale works very well.

Three stars out of five may seem a little harsh. Not a light read, but in other ways quite traditionaI, I’d give this novel seven out of ten. And the ending took me somewhat by surprise in spite of all that had gone before.

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