Friday, September 30, 2011

Why can't gigs start earlier?

Went to see Charlie Dore at Green Note in Camden Town last night. The three musicians played beautifully. Green Note is a nice little place but not exactly fit for purpose. It's so long and narrow that they had to perform in single file. From the front they looked like one of those many-armed Hindu statues.

I got up not long after five a.m. yesterday. We get up early in our house, particularly when my wife is teaching. I had a long day at work. At 6.30 I looked at my watch and realised I still had two and a half hours to kill before the show began. I went to Wagamama for something to eat then made my way over to Camden, found the venue and then went across the road to have a drink in a pub in Parkway. I bumped into an old friend, which passed some more of the time. Nonetheless, by the time she came on I was starting to fade and could only stay for the first half.

When we started True Stories Told Live I insisted that we had to start at 7.30 and finish no later than 9.30. Most people were coming straight from work and they don't want to have to kill time before the entertainment. I think it's one of the best decisions we ever made. If people want to hang about and have a meal they can do it afterwards.

I realise that most gigs are put on by people who can only make money if we eat and drink but this has meant that gigs get pushed further and further back in the evening. I suppose there are people who need time to travel in from the suburbs but most of the people I encounter have come there straight from a very long day at work. The performers may be fresh as paint but the audience are dying on their feet. If there was a thought bubble over their heads it would say "how long will it take me to get home at this time of night?"

I don't expect this to change but surely in these hard-pressed times (I walked past the Jazz Cafe last night and it appeared to be closed) there must be room for alternatives. What about two shows, one starting at 7.00? What about Saturday afternoon matinees which aren't just for kids? Lunchtimes? Back in the early 60s promoters used to organise gigs for the convenience of the audience. It seems they don't do that anymore. If ever there was a time to do it that time is now.

Monday, September 26, 2011

It's easier to make up a baddie because we're all baddies inside

I read a very good piece by novelist William Nicholson in The Guardian. He was wondering why book publishers have such a resistance to commissioning serious fiction with a hero who is middle class. After all, publishing is the most middle class of industries and its products are bought by almost exclusively middle class customers. Nicholson thinks they're in a life-long denial of who they are.

This coincides with my reading of this year's Man Booker Prize Short List. I've done four so far. The two I've enjoyed, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Snowdrops by A.D. Miller, are written from the point of view of middle-class males who are not wildly removed from the books' authors. In fact the latter almost reads like a magazine feature about life for a single male British lawyer in Putin's Russia.

I've got on less well with the other two. Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch is told by a young male urchin engaged by a Victorian collector of animals. Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan is told by an elderly black American jazz player who spent the years between the wars in Berlin. I didn't actually believe in either of them. And it's not helped by the fact that I know neither author can ever have had anything like the life experiences they describe.

I don't think this is anything to do with the fact that their authors are women. Hilary Mantel certainly made me believe in Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. But maybe that worked because he was such a sinister character. It seems that's what you have to do to make people convincing. One of the reasons Randy Newman ventriloquises so well is that his protagonists are often weak, lustful, grasping and sometimes outright malign. He's perfectly comfortable with admitting that elements of those people are inside us all.

The men (do we still call them heroes?) in the first two Booker books are averagely horny and certainly easily-led. In both cases they don't see what's happening to them. In creating them the authors seem to have revealed plenty about themselves.  That's why I preferred them to the other two where the authors don't.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

If you don't cane it on Saturday night, you won't know about the SOS bus

Returning to my Norwich hotel in the early hours of Sunday I saw the SOS bus, something which I have since learned is increasingly becoming a feature of the weekend in British city centres.

The SOS Bus is a mobile medical unit cum social work resource parked in the town's clubland. It's primarily there to keep young people who have been, in the jargon, "overdoing it" from coming to harm. It was started in response to a tragedy in 2000 when three young people in Norwich all died on the same night in drink-related incidents. It's funded by the police, the council, local club owners and other agencies such as churches. It's manned by volunteers.

I can see the benefits of this. It no doubt stops nasty cases turning into fatalities while taking the pressure off the local A&E. Young doctors I've talked to reckon that without drink the average A&E would be a comparatively serene place at the weekend. I wouldn't be surprised if the club owners' support of the SOS Bus also helps when they come to renew their licences.

At the same time you can't help but think about the message a service like this sends over time. "Society", as represented by the law and the local authorities, accepts the fact that oblivion drinking is here to stay and is prepared to devote resources to protecting those who voluntarily indulge in it from its inevitable consequences.

In the 19th century organisations like the Sally Army and the Band of Hope patrolled the back streets of major cities picking up drunks. The best they could hope for in those circumstances was a new recruit. The least they could expect was a little shame. Maybe nobody feels that any more.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ever put the wrong record on at the wedding disco?

The wedding we went to this weekend was one of those rare occasions where the dance floor was crowded from the moment the confetti bomb went off over the head of the happy couple, who inaugurated proceedings to the sound of Andy Williams. Young and old, sophisticats and rubes subsequently lapped up a programme of tunes that largely pre-dated 1990 and thankfully inclined towards the bleeding obvious: "Superstition", "Blame It On The Boogie", "I'm A Believer", "Staying Alive", "Livin' La Vida Loca" and "Uptown Girl" were just a few of the tunes I remember. None of the DJ's selections seemed to be trying to appeal to the usual snobs sneering on the sidelines because there weren't any. Everyone was on the dance floor.

The only time our man dropped the ball was when he played "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses. This can only have been in response to a request from somebody in the wedding party. The DJ must have suspected that you couldn't follow tunes like those above with a piece of near-rock as sludgy, generic and ploddingly macho as this one. It went down well with a handful of young males but the rest of the dancers began to slip away, to re-charge their glasses and wait for the restoration of good sense. The DJ's heart must have sunk and the song's 5.56 running time must have stretched before him like a Russian winter. He must have been kicking himself inside.

It's a funny thing. When dancers are in the zone they want one particular set of chords and beats to go on forever while wishing that some other set of chords and beats would immediately cease. Time either gallops by or drags unbearably according to what the tune is. Our DJ got it back with Beyonce - the universal panacea for party longueurs - and then never wavered again. Maybe that's the mark of a great wedding set. It's only by making one wrong move that we see the true path more clearly. It's only by recognising what is not party music that we appreciate how rare real party music is.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Are we too busy to play with the kids or are we too idle?

A UNICEF report says that the British don't spend enough time with their children because they're too busy. This is a theme that seems to go unchallenged by the commentariat and politicians. They were talking about it on the World At One just now. "We all live busy lives" is one of those clichés that is passed on and never examined as if that's just the inevitable price we pay for the life we lead, a bit like electricity and traffic.

The word "busy" implies that we're doing something important like work or cooking or checking our tax returns. But what we're probably "busy" doing in that time is watching TV. A recent survey found that the British watched an average of three hours forty five minutes every day. If they're being as honest as I am when the doctor asks me how much I drink in an average week, they're probably underestimating those hours.

Let's say they're watching four hours a day. That's 1,456 hours a year. That's almost sixty-one whole days a year spent watching TV. Even if you accept that some of the programmes we're watching might be passing on some worthwhile information, such as the value of spending more time with our children or going for a bracing walk, that's a mind-boggling share of time.

And if Twitter is anything to go by the people doing the heavy watching are just as likely to be the university-educated sorts with their iPads on their laps as the Jim Royles of this world. We're not busy. Just idle.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

When Degas was papped

This morning I went to the press preview of Degas and The Ballet: Picturing Movement at the Royal Academy.

In the 1870s Degas spent hours sketching dancers rehearsing and performing from every conceivable angle. His girls appear more solid than today’s ballerinas. They bend and flex. They grip their ankles. They adjust their straps. They have hips and thighs. You can almost hear them strain. For all the airs and graces on display they could be lifting baskets of fish down at the market.

Photography wasn’t up to the job of capturing a dancer on tiptoe because exposure times could be as long as fifteen minutes. The early moving pictures which were being pioneered in Paris around the same time took multiple exposures of running men, connected them and slowed them down in an effort to isolate the secrets of motion. It wasn’t satisfactory. To adapt an old commercial, thanks to the way shading and shape can suggest precise transfers of weight, only painting can do zis.

The press event was enhanced by the attendance of former prima ballerina Darcey Bussell (above). She was dressed all in red. This is the only respect in which she would be confused with the back of a bus. She was explaining how she admired the way Degas had managed to suggest that the dancer had arrived at a particular pose that very instant. To demonstrate she flickered to life in front us, dazzlingly arranging her upper body into that precise pose. Degas would have got out his pencil and made her do it again and again and again.

The exhibition finishes with a lovely touch. Degas had become obsessed with photography late in his life. When he was a very old man he was asked if he would pose for a movie. He refused. So the photographer set up in the street near his house, waited for the old man to come out and then filmed him walking past the camera. He doesn't appear to have been aware that he was being papped.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

This is what 1965 looked like if you really were absolutely fabulous

Publishing event of the week has been the arrival on You Tube of a selection of the home movies of actor and best friend of the stars Roddy McDowall. Here you see the jeunesse dorée disporting themselves on the decks of Malibu homes in the year 1965. Rock Hudson, Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Julie Andrews, Edward Fox, Robert Wagner and many more whose names don't immediately spring to mind, all knocking back small brown drinks and smoking as if the health implications were completely unknown.

You really must watch some of these films. They're curiously compelling. Three things struck me while looking at them:

 1. Nobody ever holds a home movie shot quite as long as they ought to. We frantically pan in search of movement when stillness is what the eye most craves. 2. Even Hollywood stars, for whom the admiring close-up is the stuff of their daily work, feel the need to send themselves up when put in front of a movie camera. 3. Right now some smart advertising exec is negotiating for the rights to get this footage, set it to some suitably hedonistic contemporary music and use it to sell fragrances in the run-up to Christmas.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

It's Joe Bussard, broadcasting from Planet 1928

There's nobody whose enthusiasm for music I've found more infectious over the last year than Joe Bussard. He's the collector of vintage 78s who's the subject of the documentary Desperate Man Blues. He's currently doing a weekly radio show which you can hear as a podcast. It's called Country Classics but it also features hot jazz, blues and in the one I've just been listening to, he played a flamenco recording from 1930. In fact pretty much anything Joe plays comes off a 78 and was released during that small time window that started in 1928 and ended with the Depression.

Joe hasn't got an awful lot to say about the music. In fact he's at his most eloquent when he's just dissolving into delighted giggles over some ancient track by Uncle Dave Macon or the Carter Family. He reads out listeners emails as if email had just been invented. One of them came from a listener in Atlanta who said he liked to listen while in traffic jams. "Yup, I heard of them traffic jams," says Joe, who clearly doesn't intend to experience one for himself. More power to him.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

It's better to have a short book that you actually read than a fat one that you don't

I've read two books in the last week: Submergence is a novel about a British agent taken hostage by Al-Qaeda in Somalia. Its author J.M. Ledgard says its aim is "to alter the perspective of the planet we inhabit". The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes is about a man in his sixties trying to distinguish between the things he remembers of his young life and the things that actually occured.

They're both, in their different ways, terrific. You can imagine Ledgard being a cult favourite for years to come. The Barnes book could be a big popular success because its central premise is so compelling. The thing they have in common, and the reason I've been able to read the pair of them in a week, is that they're both short. Submergence is 208 pages, The Sense Of An Ending only 160. You could read either of them in an afternoon and evening. I don't know whether this indicates that the publishing business is starting to favour brevity. It wouldn't be a bad thing if it did. Most books, like most films and most records, don't need to be anything like as long as they are.

Funny that I should read these books so quickly in the same week that the new management of Waterstone's announced that they're stopping their famous "three-for-two" offers on books. As I write this I'm looking at the spine of a fat paperback I picked up in one of these offers some while ago and still haven't read. I don't think I'll miss the three-for-two. I tend to buy books because I feel like starting them on the day I buy them. It's difficult to extend that feeling beyond one book. And if the other ones are still sitting there unread a year later it's no comfort to know I got them cheap.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Whistle Test and me

Spent a morning this week with Bob Harris and his Radio Two team who are doing a whole series of radio shows celebrating the legacy of Old Grey Whistle Test. The idea is to do one programme about each series of the show, to talk to old presenters and record sessions with the bands, many of whom are still playing. I went on the day Gang Of Four, Squeeze and Nick Lowe were booked in. We recorded it in the huge studio at Maida Vale. There's a plaque marking the fact that Bing Crosby did his last recording there in 1977. He died the following day on the golf course. I talked to the engineer who did the session. Since Whistle Test seemed to be in the air, I wrote down my personal reminiscences of my experience working on it in the early 80s in a feature in The Word. You can read it here .