Two really useful interviews today, both with people a bit more dispassionate about my protagonists – Tony Wilson and Allen Ginsberg respectively.
The first was with Jon King, singer and co-writer (with Andy Gill) of landmark post-punk band Gang of Four. He had contact with Tony through appearing on his TV show So It Goes as well as through touring (Warsaw, the early iteration of Joy Division supported Gang of Four). Their paths also crossed at what was billed as the first Situationist conference in Manchester, where Tony, Jon and a worse-for-wear Mark E Smith appeared on a panel together. Jon’s insights into autodidact Wilson’s enthusiastic interest in Ideas was a useful one and helped clarify whether he really was a pretentious ‘twat’ or not, or more importantly what motivated his creative catalysing.
The second was with David Amram, the musician and composer most closely associated with the Beats. He sees Kerouac as the prime-mover in the circle by virtue of the seriousness of his commitment to his art. We crossed paths briefly when the scroll typescript of On The Road came to the British Library a year ago. Again his non-idealised perspective on Allen was a useful counter-balance to the mythologising and smoothing of rough edges over time and retelling.
Both conversations were fascinating and free-flowing, and such encounters are without doubt the highlights of this experience and process. One point of contact between the two interviews is that both interviewees spotlighted Muddy Waters as a key person in their worlds. Jon saw Gang of Four as a blues band in essence with Muddy and Robert Johnson as core figures. David puts Muddy at the heart of American music, even though at points in the 60s it took the Brits to show the Yanks what they had.
As Jon recounted his time at CBGB’s in New York towards the end of his student years in the Fine Art department of Leeds University, another idea came to mind for a spin-off project which I initiated at the end of the afternoon with a friend of mine who works a lot in radio. A good omen was we both came up with the exact same (slightly obscure) working title.
A day when real life intruded quite a lot. I had to go to an appointment in town in the morning then to the localest Apple Store to figure out what’s up with our home network as the various devices fight among themselves. That’s how I found myself writing the end of the first pass at the Music chapter in Brent Cross shopping centre, sitting beside a friendly aul fella who wanted to talk about his scout troop and buying gifts for his teenage grand-children. Such are my powers of concentration (developed when working as a newly minted freelancer out of my baby son’s bedroom) that I had the conversation in true About Time fashion and made steady progress on Chapter 2 (I’m not writing them in order I hasten to add). [I watched About Time last weekend and much though I liked the underlying sentiment, it made me really angry in its bad middle-classness and nauseous complacency, I'm now tipped over the edge and loathe Richard Curtis's 'film-making' - if I can gather the energy I'll write a few lines some time about the Daily Telegraph of writer/directors.]
Meanwhile, back in another manifestation of bad middle-classness, I enjoyed walking through suburbia in the golden winter sun, struck how even the urban shit-hole (shit in its overwhelming mediocrity, not even shit enough to be engaging shit) that is Brent Cross/Golders Green/North Circularland can be lifted by Nature’s lighting. Enjoying the warmth on the back of my neck I headed up to Lutyens’ Institute, nearby in Hampstead Garden Suburb to get some more keyboard-tapping in. The late afternoon sunshine was beautiful and tranquil and I made more good progress, writing about the history and revival of Manchester from the early 80s onwards with help from Factory.
I finished off at home once the sun came down, a bitty but not unproductive day. The peripatetic writing is definitely a kick.
I’m writing this post in the sunlit, leaf-strewn churchyard of St Marylebone Parish Church, with the bells ringing. That’s a stark contrast with where I did most of my work on Day 69 which was in an armchair by a fireplace in the Soho Hotel off Dean Street. I’d been to a meeting at King’s Cross Station, beneath the new fan-lattice glass roof which I’d never looked at before, with a British-based academic/innovation expert originally from Kiel. She is focusing on the shift from the self-centred world of work to a group/team/pluralistic focus, concentrating on corporate contexts. Whilst there is without doubt an interface between her research and what I’m writing about, coming at the subject from the perspective of individual artists or creative catalysts and their immediate (usually friendship) circle is an angle I feel much more comfortable with. Making rewards and performance relate to sharing, open and altruistic behaviour in corporate contexts is not simple and without that in place it is easy to conjure up an exploitative scenario.
So back at the dimly lit fireside I tapped away for several hours on Factory and Tony Wilson. I also landed a class interview with a key member of a prominent band of the era. I was reflecting earlier in the day how many of my teenage heroes I’d ended up meeting and working with during my career. In almost every case it seems a highly unlikely scenario [Word of the Day] from the perspective of those youthful days, which is what always makes it a kick.
Rounded off the day at a film screening downstairs in the hotel (hence the choice of venue) – the Coen Brothers’ latest one, Inside Llewyn Davis. Enjoyed the film, especially the music performances set in 1961 Greenwich Village, though suspect I will be among a relatively small appreciative audience, it’s quite far from the mainstream and I have a particular interest in Dylan and his precursors.
After the movie my Other Half and I had a drink upstairs in the hotel and got a chance to chat with both Oscar Isaac, the talented young star of the movie, who plays a character based on Dave Van Ronk and was very nearly the second Bourne after Matt Damon (finally losing out to Jeremy Renner by a whisker), and T-Bone Burnett whose soundtrack graced the picture. Both of us are fans of T-Bone’s Crazy Heart soundtrack and we had a terrific chat with him about both music and modern day surveillance (a subject he seems currently much bothered by). He was a total gentleman in both his elegant, tall bearing and his easy manner. The perfect person with whom to end a week of writing about Music, openness and generosity.
It’s been some week – three significant losses to the world. On Tuesday 3rd I had a previously reported session with The Box. One of the 45s that came up was a copy of Free Nelson Mandela by Amy Winehouse, given me by my friend Farrah. An unusual live recording, very very good but the record itself is strange, no label either side, pressed in a dull golden coloured vinyl. My friend and backgammon partner, Stuart, asked whether I’d heard how Mandela was now getting on and I said more of the same as far as I knew, in recovery to some extent. 2 days later Mandela suddenly passed on. Reflecting on his life, the predominant qualities for me were his peace and calm, focus and joy. This last in the sense that he seemed to take genuine pleasure in everything from winning the Rugby World Cup to dancing to meeting everyday people.
That same Box session had begun with a tribute spin of Police and Thieves (both as performed by The Clash and Junior Murvin) to mark the passage of Junior Murvin that day to The Big Dance.
Then two days ago I hear that Stan Tracey has moved on up to The Big Gig. I went to the excellent Edinburgh Jazz Festival this summer and my main mission was to see Bobby Wellins, who made Under Milk Wood with Stan Tracey. One of my favourite posts in Simple Pleasures part 4 is the one from St Patrick’s Day 2007 about the sublime Tracey & Wellins track Starless and Bible Black. At that performance in Edinburgh it turned out Stan Tracey was feeling unwell and couldn’t perform. I kept the notice as a souvenir. The same thing happened to me a few years earlier with Alice Coltrane – I had the ticket on my shelf but she died in the interim so I never got to see her perform. Likewise seeing Stan was not to be. That track, Starless and Bible Black, is genuinely one of the all-time greats.
So three huge losses to humanity this week, to which we can only respond by counting our lucky stars that they were ever in our lives.
I started Day 67 on non-book business in Marylebone to do with my main non-exec directorship – it was a nice change to be immersed in a thoroughly commercial world. I moseyed on though Mayfair in the direction of BAFTA in Piccadilly and briefly immersed myself in the art world courtesy of the Halcyon Gallery which has a big show of Bob Dylan’s iron sculptures and paintings which was fun. Once I got to BAFTA I dived back in to the Music chapter happily. Bumped into a couple of people who were helpful in making connections to interviewees (both for Music chapter). And set up some more interviews. Wandered across St James’s and through the dark park to Channel 4 HQ for Xmas drinks, my first visit to the building in several weeks, only my second since 1st September kick-off day, refreshing.
Day 68 began in the British Library with more tapping away about Tony Wilson. Had a lovely lunch round the corner in St Chad’s Place with Jesse Cleverly of the newly established Wildseed Studios, which he describes as “a content incubator looking to invest in great new ideas”. We talked Book, multiplatform, Royal Court (where he used to work), Nigella, creative process, etc.
Then bee-line home for more writing and to speak to the other protagonist of my Music chapter – Terri Hooley of Good Vibrations. He was totally charming and warm, and I really look forward to heading over to Belfast to hang with him in the next few days. He offered me a tour of Van’s East Belfast which will be a real kick.
And the day ends here in the Adam & Eve on Mill Hill’s Ridgeway – as much my home turf as Cyprus Avenue is Van’s. I’ve got mulled wine, crisps, seat by fire, Sinatra on the pub stereo, and my fresh little Air. Happy days.
The free-flowing form of writing I’ve mentioned over the last couple of days – park up all the research, have a broad sense of structure, rely on what surfaces in your memory, dive in – is a bit like a thick elastic rope attached to your back: you can run for a while and make good progress but at some point it starts to pull you back. At that point you have to cut it and shift to a different approach. The systematic form of writing – work systematically through your research notes and weave them carefully into your text. That’s the switch I did on Day 66 working on the Music chapter. And it really helped free me up from the stickiness of Day 65, the end of my elastic dash, when I started to struggle to marshall the material and uncover the route forward. I got back momentum and enjoyed not having to think quite so hard.
Rewarded the endeavours with a trip to The Phoenix to see the excellent The Way Way Back.
Rounded off a light day with more Sylvia Beach research for the prospective Publishing chapter.
Had a lovely Box and Backgammon session with my Best Man, Stuart, this evening. Opened proceedings with a non-Box record in the shape of The Clash’s first LP to mark the passing of Junior Murvin with the obvious but no less wonderful Police and Thieves. He wasn’t so keen on The Clash’s amphetamine cover but I am, and I wasn’t sure I could dig out the original single from my somewhat chaotic singles collection, bits of alphabetical order but not in sequence. As it was it turned out to be with some M records, after drawing a blank among the Js. Sweet voice, lovely swing to the tune.
One of my proudest moments as a father was when Enfant Terrible No. 1, aged three, accompanied me to the hairdresser as was his wont. Police & Thieves came on the sound system and after just three notes I asked: What’s that? Quick as a flash he answered: Police & Thieves. The staff couldn’t believe it. But he had had his first birthday mix tape that year and the songs were all about things he was interested in like Cowboys, Indians, Cops & Robbers.
I once wrote an art review for a paper Stuart and I worked on entitled From Genesis to Revelations – can’t remember what the theme or exhibition was any more but the title came straight from this song and was perfect in the context.
From Genesis to Revelations,
What the next generation will be, hear me
Lee Perry produced Junior Murvin’s signature track. I played a track by The Orb with Scratch on it this evening from The Box (courtesy of my friend Sarah Haque of Urban Species) – I’d played an EP just before which was at 33 RPM and forgot to change back to 45 …but the track sounded great (including Perry’s voice) which just goes to show how magical music is and I hope Junior is having a magical time at the Big Dance.
This morning did an interesting Allen Ginsberg-related interview with Kathelin Gray, a close associate of William Burroughs who crossed paths with Ginsberg on a regular basis, initially on the hippy scene in her home city of San Francisco and later in New York in the Lower East Side playground of Ginsberg’s circles. She has impeccable Beat credentials in that her mother was a close friend of Carolyn Cassady and she remembers being bounced on the knee of the elegant blonde. She works across a range of disciplines including producing, writing, directing and curating. She produced a documentary featuring Free Jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman and indeed there’s an Ornette Coleman/Pat Metheny track named after her. She consulted for ECM in the 80s (who have been on my radar for Music case studies) and was involved recently in Godfrey Reggio’s latest film, Visitors, with a soundtrack by Philip Glass (who collaborated with Reggio on the Koyaanisqatsi trilogy and of course collaborated with Ginsberg).
We met at BAFTA (good to be using my membership a bit more during this time) and talked first about Ginsberg and then about Kathelin’s broad-ranging work. We spoke about her involvement in Biosphere 2, a closed ecological system experiment in Arizona, and her current focus, a project based on the Research Vessel Heraclitus, a 25-metre Chinese junk. Since 1975 its multicultural crew of explorers and artists has sailed the vessel over 270,000 miles, in every sea except the Arctic. The current three year expedition is to study the changing port cultures of the Mediterranean. I could do with a bit of Med myself right now under these grey skies.
In the afternoon I wrestled a bit with the Tony Wilson chapter which has reached a treacly bit. I’ll just have to persist and keep writing til I get out the other side…
By way of consolation prize, I popped downstairs to Hatchards and bought myself a signed copy of Robert Harris’ latest novel about the Dreyfus Affair to read as my down-time book over the holidays.
Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle
[Baudelaire, Spleen - Les Fleurs du Mal]
Last night Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera played the whole of their 1983 debut LP High Land, Hard Rain at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. At one point he mentioned their break-through gig in Paisley when they opened for Teardrop Explodes. The reference point was that it was the day Ian Curtis’ death was announced. He made it clear that across three decades it remains a landmark moment in the youth and musical lives of a generation.
Doubling up to six decades and we get who stole the show to some extent last night. Frame’s yellow-gold 1953 Gibson 295 ‘Scotty Moore’ guitar. I don’t know anything about guitars but I do know it sounded sweet and distinctive (worthy of the Scotty Moore name) and it looked beautiful to boot. The last time I wrote about a particular guitar in Simple Pleasures pt 4 (back in 2010), The Man with the Boo Guitar, it was Boo Hewerdine’s guitar and the maker, Alister Atkin down in Canterbury, kindly got in touch via comments.
Anyway, Day 64 was immersed once Moore in the world of Ian Curtis, Tony Wilson, Factory Records and Joy Division, key inspirers of the likes of young Roddy Frame, a 15 year old in an East Kilbride bedroom, intent on mixing the Manchester sound with The Clash and Wes Montgomery to come up with a fresh new vibe, which he brought down to London half-way through creating High Land (named after a street in Acton) to a soul-mate of Factory in the shape of Rough Trade records.
In terms of writing process I felt at a fork on this chapter in that I could continue going with the flow of my thoughts and store of research-based memories which is free-wheelin’ but risks losing control, or work my way now steadily through the research notes and integrate them into the emerging structure (which is largely how the Paul Arden chapter was written and yielded a perfectly good structure in the end). I decided to take the High Road of the free-flow and trust its own building logic and form will take it in a course which ultimately works.