Lou Reed: In Memoriam

At the age of 71, Lou Reed has died relatively young, but he lasted a lot longer than he or many other people might have expected, given his formidable intake of heroin and alcohol.  His songs and music were a part of my life for a very long time.   As a teenager doing my A Levels at the Cambridge tech, songs like Perfect Day and Walk on the Wild Side were played so often on the café jukebox that they were permanently ingrained on my consciousness, whether I wanted it or not.

I was a huge fan of the Velvet Underground, not only because of their disturbing and discordant guitar sound, but because of the sharp lyrics which provided an essential counterpoint to some of the candy-floss psychedelic music that was still swirling around in the early 70s.

I remember being positively awestruck by the demonic opening chords to Heroin, and Reed’s sneering junkie cri de coeur:

I wish that I was born a thousand years ago/I wish that I’d sail the darkened seas /
On a great big clipper ship/Going from this land here to that/In a sailor’s suit and cap

Even though that song was about taking heroin, it also expressed an existential angst and a revulsion that many of us felt at the time, with its angry references to ‘All the Jim-Jim’s in this town/ And all the politicians makin’ crazy sounds/And everybody puttin’ everybody else down/And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds.’

When I was living in Cambridge, Berlin – ‘the most depressing album of all time’ as some critics called it – seemed to be playing on everyone’s stereo, to the point when you wondered why there wasn’t an epidemic of mass suicides.  It might because the songs on Berlin are in fact a rather beautiful, romantic and tragic tale of a doomed love affair that many of us back then could relate to – or thought we could.

And that was the thing about Reed.   In addition to bleak and gritty tales of seamy urban life such as Waiting for My Man, he could also be  surprisingly tender.   I’ll Be Your Mirror is probably one of the greatest love songs ever written, and All Tomorrow’s Parties and Sunday Morning beautifully encapsulated moods that many people have felt the night before and the morning after.

My favourite Lou Reed song is probably Sweet Jane, which I would rate lyrically and musically as one of the greatest rock songs of all time – a song that manages to be angry, sarcastic and triumphantly joyful at the same time, even in the Cowboy Junkies’ rather doleful reading.

I never saw Reed live, though I did see Nico emanating icy teutonic gloom and disdain in Amsterdam once.  I also saw John Cale a couple of times in his craziest period, when he would lumber around the stage like an angry giant and attack his keyboard, with Chris Spedding on guitar.  Reed’s music had a big influence on the band that I played in, when I lived in New York in the early 80s.   Our guitar sound was very much in the Velvet Underground tradition, and would in fact have been impossible without it.  The same could be said of dozens of bands in the late seventies and early eighties.

Living in the Lower East Side, Spanish Harlem and Brooklyn, I also saw the world that Reed wrote about, which gave his songs a new relevance.  In fact the bars in the Lower East Side were filled with Lou Reed clones wandering round in leather pants and looking moody and existential.  The man himself once came into the bookshop where I worked, but I didn’t speak to him.

And his death reminds me – as it has reminded many people – how great he was.   And it also makes me think of another of my favourite Reed songs, Men of Good Fortune, on which he sings:

Men of good fortune
often wish that they could die
While men of poor beginnings
want what they have and to get it they’ll die

All those great things that life has to give
they wanna have money and live
But me, I just don’t care at all

Unlike his character, Reed really did care.   And for anyone who regards rock music as something more than throwaway ephemeral entertainment,  he made a massive  contribution, and provided a unique voice that despite its many would-be imitators,  remains his, and his alone.

Hats Off to Nic Jones!

I’ve been reading a lot of pretty grim stuff about war recently, in connection with a book that I’m working on.   This is in addition to the routine 21st century carnage that has been unfolding back and forth across the world over the last week.    So it was a welcome and refreshing antidote from the daily dose of poison to watch Michael Proudfoot’s magnificent and deeply affecting BBC documentary on the folksinger Nic Jones last night, which is currently doing the rounds of the independent cinemas as well.

For those that don’t know, Nic Jones was one of the best guitarists and songwriters on the British folk scene in the early 70s, before his career was suddenly cut short by a head-on road collision in 1982, while driving home from a gig in Glossop, Derbyshire.  The accident was so bad that Jones’s  car radio ended up in the boot, almost every bone in his body was broken,  his teeth ended up in his lungs and much of his body had to be reconstructed.

Incredibly, his guitar survived the crash, though his neurological and physical injuries  meant that he couldn’t play or sing.   As a guitar player myself, I cannot listen to Jones without feeling dizzy with envy, curiosity and admiration at the effortlessly springy, melodic and percussive style that he developed using open tunings, which really sounds like no one else even though it influenced many other musicians.

Jones also has a fantastically warm, pure and rich English singing voice.    So his accident was a terrible blow for him and his family, and it was also a great loss to British folk music, since his injuries left him unable to play guitar for many years, and even then without the rhythm and swing that he had before his accident.

Incredibly, his son Joe learned to play guitar as an adult, and copied his father’s style with such startling accuracy that he became almost a musical avatar of Jones himself.   Last year the two of them played at the Warwick folk festival in Jones’s first public gig since his accident,  accompanied by the pianist Belinda Tooley.

This comeback is the focal point of Proudfoot’s film, which explores Jones’s music and his influences, through interviews with his guitar maker, members of his family, as well as musicians and fans who include Martin Carthy, the folk journalist Ian Anderson, the comedian Stuart Lee, younger musicians like Anais Mitchell and Sam Carter, and poet John Hegley.

Jones comes across as a remarkably optimistic, gentle and modest man,  self-deprecating and good-humoured about the formidable talent that was so abruptly shut down, and that he has clearly only been able to recover through an immense effort of will.

His performance at Warwick was awesome.  Even at 65 years old, his voice still had the richness and tenderness of his youth,  and the rapt and mesmerised expressions of even the younger members of the audience showed that his songs still had the power to reach across the generations.

But what made these extracts even more powerful was the knowledge of what had come before them, and the long and difficult recuperation that had made it possible for Jones to get back on stage and make these songs available once again.  So the film was on one hand a film about that process of recovery, about the courage, resilience and creativity of Jones himself, and the family and friends who helped him, and the relationships that he formed.

In one of its most moving moments, one of Jones’s former bandmembers – a childhood friend who he once defended against the school bully and lost his teeth as a result – nearly cries as he describes how Jones saw him for the first time in nearly forty years and held his hands and sang his song ‘Now’.

The film looked in some detail at the various components of Jones’s music, his guitar technique, his voice, the origins of his songs.     But it was  also a film about the communicative power of music in general,  about how music is made, about the ripples, tributaries and connections that it forms, between musicians and musicians, between musicians and their audience, about its ability to touch the emotions of the most disparate people and create small but indispensable moments of beauty, solace, excitement, poetry, and humor that  make life worth living.

Such moments are often obscured by the march of  history and the din of great events, and – nowadays, by the constant and unceasing flow of virtual events and secondhand information into our globalised, plugged-in brains.   Posterity is unlikely to record the fact that a folksinger called Nic Jones performed in front of a few hundred people in a tent in Warwick in 2012, for the first time after recovering from a terrible accident.

But none of those who were present are likely to forget it, and thanks to Proudfoot’s great film those of who were not there can get a glimpse of that moment too, and rediscover the beautifully-crafted songs that Jones brought into the world.

At the end of the film, the singer/songwriter Sam Carter tells a great story about how he once played a Nic Jones song in a primary school, and found to his amazement that the kids knew the lyrics and sang them.   In the last scene of the film, kids from the same school sing ‘Now’ – with its invitation ‘ to live each moment aware/ that the now is here so simple and clear.’

That is an idea that has often been expressed, but Jones and Proudfoot make it fresh again and remind us how true it is.    And if you can watch that scene without feeling a little tingle down your spine reader, then there is probably nothing that I or anyone else can do for you

 

It’s only teenage wasteland: pop culture’s vapid dreamworld

When you’re in your mid-50s, you can’t help noticing that time’s winged chariot is hurtling towards you a little faster than you would like.   So every other day I dutifully trudge off to the gym and hit the machines in an attempt to slow down its progress a little.

Unfortunately, some genius had the bright idea of blasting continual chart hits and music videos, so that it’s impossible to be anywhere in the room without some factory-produced choreographed dance number or mawkish ballad pulsating in my ears – an experience that I find about as life-affirming as having embalming fluid pumped into my brain.

I have tried to blot it out by wearing headphones and listening to the radio, but the reception is so poor that sometimes I only get static, which I still find preferable to the bleatings of One Direction or Pixie Lott.    But even worse than hearing these songs is watching the dreadful videos that accompany them, which are transmitted on  screens all over the gym, like messages from some weird totalitarian state where the whole population is permanently dancing and permanently young.

Because no matter how many I watch I never cease to be amazed at the mind-numbing vacuity of these musical epics.   Most of them are dreamy exercises in hyper-narcissism and self adoration, with rows  of dancing clones singing variations on the same obsessive theme of give-it-to-me one- more- time-babeee and I need you tonite etc.

Many of them present their stars in the midst of crowd scenes, like the one of Ollie Mars dancing outside some blonde girl’s house before being arrested (oh what rebels these pop stars are), or Kelly Clarkson singing

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stronger
Just me, myself and I

Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t have put it better.  And that ‘Just me, myself and I’ pretty much sums up the crushing inanity of this powdery brain fluff.  The majority of these videos are like advertisements for an endless  Ibiza beach party, blending gangsta’s paradise fantasies with imagery from Forbes magazine or Condé Naste Traveller in an unproblematic celebration of instant gratification forever.

Many of these stars are like premier league footballers and share the same tastes, mouthing inane lyrics and frantically posturing in exotic locations while driving expensive sports cars, riding on jet skis or even in one case piloting a fighter plane.   Usually they are decked out in cool shades, trainers, boots and all those other consumer goodies that our feral youths went window-shopping for last summer.

Cars are a constant accessory in these fantasies of wealth and limitless consumption, whether its Jennifer Lopez being mobbed in a Fiat 500 in Papi, or Lady Gaga writhing around on the roof of one car in Marry the Night, while another burns for reasons I can’t quite fathom – presumably because she’s like, so hot that she can set cars on fire by osmosis.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some of these three minute anthems are seriously moody and depressed, and watching the succession of partying dance scenes and self-pitying torch songs is a bit like being trapped inside the mind of a manic depressive who has lost their medication.

So one minute Rhianna is out looting a supermarket and watching fireworks explode in a druggy relationship with her dodgy boyfriend and letting him tattoo something (a brand name?) on her backside, the next thing she’s weeping on the bathroom floor.  And then there is the ageing Katy Perry mourning the time when she used to listen to Radiohead with the youthful love of her life, before he accidentally drove his  car off a cliff after a row in The One that Got Away.  

Some of these mini soap operas reach quite stunning levels of banality.  Take Demi Lovato’s Like a Skyscraper, which was released last year to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  In the video, our windswept chanteuse can be found practically swooning with emotion in a white dress on the Bonneville Salt Flats singing the memorable lines:

As the smoke clears
I awaken and untangle you from me
Would it make you feel better to watch me while I bleed
All my windows still are broken but I’m standing on my feet

You can take everything I have
You can break everything I am
Like I’m made of glass
Like I’m made of paper
Go on and try to tear me down
I will be rising from the ground
Like a skyscraper, like a skyscraper

From time to time the camera closes in on Lovato’s face to highlight her intense emotion – none of which has anything to do with the apocalyptic events she’s singing about.  I understand that Lovato has had anorexia and depression and that is bad.  I’ve also read messages from teenagers and adolescents saying that they were bullied or had similar problems and that her song inspired them.

But didn’t it occur to anyone that none of these problems are quite on the same level as the mass murder of nearly three thousand people, that people in bad love affairs do not stagger bleeding from destroyed buildings, or that evoking 9/11 imagery in a song about personal relationships is an act of gross self-indulgence which simultaneously trivialises a major historical tragedy?

Probably not.  Because in pop culture’s ultimately shallow world of me, myself and I, the wider world is almost always absent, the only crises are personal ones and the only reason to look soulful and sad is because I lost you or I haven’t found you or I want you back, and the only thing that matters is that you emote and that other people watch you do it and feel as sorry for you as you do yourself.

In some strange way however, the vacuity of pop culture really does reflect the mood of the last twenty years, with its wild soaring highs when it seemed that  things would only get better and the troughs and crashes when it turned out they really weren’t going to.

But maybe now that so many bubbles have burst, the time has come to go to musical rehab and find an antidote to so much drivel.   Yesterday Michael Davis, the bass player of the late great MC5 died of liver disease.  That isn’t how rock n’ rollers ever imagine they will meet their end.   I remember when I bought Back In The USA nearly thirty years ago and it fairly scorched off my turntable.

The MC5 were aiming their songs at teenagers too.  But unlike the producers of today’s solipsistic  aural valium, they weren’t trying to put the world’s youth to sleep, but to wake them up.   And so, on the day that Michael Davis died, it seems a fitting moment to clear my head of Pixie Lott and One Direction, and remember his contribution to one of the most incendiary two and half minute anthems that anyone  ever recorded:

 

 

Etta James RIP

In terms of its ability to stir the emotions, there is nothing like the singing voice, and  that power has never been dependent on technical proficiency.  There are a lot of singers with great voices who fail to evoke or generate any emotion at all.   Like Alexandra Burke singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.  Or Leona Lewis’ atrocious version of Hurt, the Nine Inch Nails song that Johnny Cash so powerfully and triumphantly transformed into the anthem of his twilight years.

Cash took a song about pain and heroin addiction and transformed it into a sombre existential credo, drawing on an inner torment and darkness that cannot be reproduced on the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent – and which would almost certainly be considered intrusive, alien and just too real if anyone tried.

It is almost impossible to watch Cash singing ‘ Everyone I know, goes away in the end’ in his aged, quavering voice on that last great video,  against a crescendo of piano  and acoustic guitars, without feeling touched in places that Simon Cowell – thankfully – can never reach.

Lewis’ bland and ridiculous version, on the other hand, has all the emotional depth and dramatic power that one might expect from Basil Brush reading Auden’s Funeral Blues.  But this stunningly inappropriate choice of cover maybe reflects a certain zeitgeist.   As capitalism stagnates and crumbles, as one country after another goes down the austerity plughole and the future often seems to turn grimmer by the day, pop culture continues to provide an inane backdrop our lives.

Today it is impossible to turn on the radio or go into a shopping centre without hearing some manufactured singer with a perfect voice emanating fake and pre-packaged emotion in soaring Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey-esque cadences.  Many of these songs are  accompanied by the usual videos of pretty airbrushed singers straining to make even their most banal pronouncements seem soulful and heartfelt, eyes closed and faces transfixed by a passion and emotion that that is often conspicously absent from their Cowellised bleatings.

The themes of most of these songs are pretty much the same as always: how I found you, how I need you, how I lost you, how I want you back again.  But with a few exceptions both the songs and the singers sound – and often look – like clones who have come fresh off a studio production line, and their frantic emoting often sounds hollow and emotionally numb.

But maybe that’s how we like it.  Maybe fake music is the most appropriate soundtrack for an era in which so much has been revealed to be fake.  Because these are sad and painful times for many people and as TS Elliot once pithily observed, humankind cannot bear very much reality.

One  singer who was not fake was Etta James, who died yesterday at the age of 73. When Etta sang, she really meant it.   Her voice was an amazing instrument.  She could be soulful, bluesy, gutsy, sexy and tender and she was able to transmit a level of raw emotion that is conspicuously absent from so many of today’s clones.

My all-time favourite James song is I’d Rather Go Blind, which she recorded in 1968.   Co-written by a friend of hers Ellington Jordan, who first sang it to her when she visited him in jail, it is just one of the most poignant and beautiful love songs ever recorded.

Many people have covered this song, including Rachel Crow – on the first US season of the X-Factor, no less.  Beyoncé did a creditable version for the film Cadillac Records, in which she put in a fine performance as James herself.  But nothing I have ever heard beats the original.  Even after listening to it countless times, I still feel that tingle in the spine when that shimmering opening guitar riff comes in and James sings out

Something told me it was over/When I saw you and her talkin’/Something deep down in my soul said, ‘Cry, girl’/When I saw you and that girl walkin’ around

Many people have felt these sentiments and many singers sung about them, but few singers have ever conveyed  sadness, longing and regret so powerfully as James did in that song.  Like Billie Holiday, she really meant it, and when she sang the blues she sang them from experience.  Abandoned by her father as a child, she was brought up by various carers because her mother was never at home, one of whom used to beat her in order to make her sing for his friends.  Even after signing for Chess Records and becoming famous, she had longterm problems with heroin addiction and a succession of bad relationships.

No one would wish such experiences on anyone, and they can’t be considered some kind of precondition for great art.  But in James’ case, they forged a singer with real heart and soul, whose emotions were genuinely felt rather than simulated for the benefit of the cameras or a place in the X Factor final.

In her later years she suffered from dementia and the leukemia that eventually killed her.   But I will always remember the proud, sad and beautiful woman who poured so much of her life into two minutes and thirty seconds of pure unadulterated emotion, which you can find right here: