Monday, August 26, 2013

Here is the news - Bob Dylan can put across a song

I got up early this morning and ordered Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 by Bob Dylan from Amazon. I have Prime so it will arrive tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, I can rip the CD straightaway and listen to it with the first cup of tea, quietly so as not to wake the sleeping house.

All this seems a hilariously digital way to listen to a record made more than forty years ago, when I was a teenager, a record that even at the time seemed to be tapping into an even earlier world. One of the lines in the first song "I went to see the gypsy" goes "I went down to the lobby/To make a small call out", which strikes me as black and white somehow.

I remember "Self Portrait" coming out. It was met with puzzlement, partly because it was a double and, thanks to its inclusion of live tracks from the Isle of Wight, seemed neither one thing nor the other. Critics complained that he wasn't writing those acid, wordy songs any more. They were comparatively delighted with the follow-up "New Morning" because it seemed less straightforward. They couldn't abide the sound of apparent content. But critics think that the world sees and hears things the way that they do, which they don't. A few people liked it. Most people shrugged and bought Elton John instead.

I'm enjoying listening to it. I'm not a student of Dylan bootlegs and therefore my enjoyment isn't ruined by thinking "why didn't they release the other version of this?" I just like the way Bob Dylan sings.  I always have. Forget the stuff about being an artist, let alone a visionary. He's never had much of a voice but he's a singer of genius. As the guitarist David Bromberg says in this promotional clip, "the man could put across a song like no-one else can - it just comes through". In the end that may be the truest thing you can say about Bob Dylan. He can put across a song. It's no small thing.

Friday, August 23, 2013

What I Read On My Holidays

I didn't set out to spend the summer reading unfashionable books. It was a New Yorker podcast with Jonathan Franzen that nudged me into reading two Edith Wharton books, The House of Mirth and then The Age Of Innocence. Some of the time her style's as long-winded as a nineteenth century proposal of marriage but then she socks you on the jaw with the kind of reality most novelists don't deal in:
The only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it. 
Edith had a great deal so she knew. She wasn't pretty, though, and I fancy she'd have exchanged some of the money for looks. I've since taken one step further back into American writers with Henry James and The Portrait of A Lady. This is a journey to a time when the American upper class measured themselves against the English upper class. Most odd.

On holiday in a friend's house in France I picked up Canada, which was the first book I'd ever read by Richard Ford. This is a real page-turner, written like a movie, about two kids out on the prairie whose parents decide to rob a bank to pay their debts. This led me to buy Ford's The Sportswriter when I got back. Published in 1986 it's about a middle-aged man derailed by a bereavement. Because he used to be a sports writer Ford is good on athletes:
Years of athletic training teach this: the necessity of relinquishing doubt and ambiguity and self-inquiry in favour of a pleasant, self-championing one-dimensionality which has instant rewards in sports. 
That reminds me of something I read in Chad Harbach's The Art Of Fielding. Then my sister gave me an Amazon voucher for my birthday and I bought the Charles Moore biography of Margaret Thatcher. I don't know if Craig Brown was pitching it a bit high when he said it might be "the greatest political biography ever" but it's an extraordinary account of times that I remember, genuinely worth reading for the footnotes alone and a salutary reminder of a time before instant feedback. There are plenty of references to whisky and not a single mention of a focus group.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What football needs is a theatre critic

Brian Case once wrote a piece about Ian Dury, which said something like "rock and roll is notable for two things - the beat, which isn't very interesting, and the gestural arts, which are."

As the Premier League returned this weekend, I thought you could say something similar about big football. It's the gestural arts that drive it rather than the results: Rooney's pointedly not celebrating with the rest of his team, Mourinho's dewy-eyed welcome back to Stamford Bridge, Suarez turning up at Anfield clutching his tiny daughter as if to deflect any aggravation his behaviour may have stored up, the Arsenal fans holding up banners telling Wenger to spend.

BT Sport should find room in their army of pundits for a theatre critic.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

No more big TV recommendations, thanks. I'm full

Yes, I know Breaking Bad's really good. Yes, I know Deadwood is as well. As are Broadchurch, Top of The Lake, The Americans, Arrested Development and another half-dozen longform TV series I've never watched. You can't watch one episode of programmes like these so I don't watch any at all.

Society hasn't caught up with the fact that there is now more great telly than there is life. The traditional process of word of mouth recommendation, in which people at parties get that shiny look in their eyes and then say "you must watch" so-and-so, doesn't take into account the fact that these days programmes like the above demand almost as much of your time as a fat novel.

Furthermore, in order to find the brainspace for a new one you have to stop watching an old one. Which, since they seem to go on for ever, is not possible. So, I'm not saying I don't believe you. I'm just saying that I'm full, thanks.

Monday, August 12, 2013


In the course of this really excellent discussion about how musicians are to make a living nowadays Dave Allen of the Gang Of Four says that after thirty-five years he's still not recouped from EMI Records.

That's what happens, or at least what used to happen. The record companies, which operated to all intents and purposes like banks, advanced a band a certain amount of money out of which they had to make a record and live.

If the record didn't sell enough to earn back the advance (and even in the rare cases where it did), they borrowed another advance to make the next one, piling new debt on old, in the (usually vain) hope that they would make it big with the third or fourth album, clear the debt and advance into the broad sunlit uplands of solvency.

For the overwhelming majority of acts - as many as 90%, I'm guessing - it never happened. When the megastores would mount those mammoth "3 for £10" CD sales ten years ago all those albums were made by acts who had no prospect of ever earning back what they owed to the record companies.  Their CDs were sitting around cluttering up warehouses and at the normal rate of sales they would be there for ever. So why not knock them out cheap?

And it doesn't make any difference whether the acts were well-known or had lots of hits. They'd kept on getting advances to make albums that people didn't buy and therefore the money would be recouped out of the revenues of the ones that did.

At the time their first album came out the Gang Of Four were quite celebrated. They were on the cover of music papers. Their views were sought. Their name was dropped. They got into the chart. It doesn't mean that you break the advance. Wonder if they'd have believed it if you'd told them at the time.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Sometimes it's best not to have the human touch

We were delayed by a few hours in turning up at Calais for our booked journey on Le Shuttle.

We didn't call ahead. We just thought we'd see what happened. I pulled up at the unmanned ticket office. A camera read my number plate and the following message appeared on the screen. "You can depart on the next available train, Mr Hepworth. This is in forty minutes. There will be no extra charge."

So we did. That's the beauty of a completely automated system. It doesn't want to punish you. It just wants to get you out of its hair as soon as possible.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Seriously, are managers actually allowed to talk to players any more?

Luis Suarez says Brendan Rodgers promised him he could leave if Liverpool didn't get into the Champions League.

Footballers are always referring to conversations about their future that allegedly took place months or years earlier. I find it hard to picture these heart to hearts. Where do they take place? Behind closed doors in the manager's office? In front of witnesses in the boardroom? Are they whispered in the player's ear and accompanied by a pat on the backside as they're brought on with fifteen minutes to go? Are they on the phone? What language - or broken language - are they in?

I was thinking of this while previewing the Radio Four adaptation of David Peace's novel about Bill Shankly Red or Dead. In the old days of football I can easily imagine managers taking players aside and using the full arsenal of their man-management techniques on them. In today's litigious era I would be surprised if the clubs let managers say anything to players which didn't directly pertain to what was expected of them in the next ninety minutes. They simply couldn't take the risk.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Soft adjectives are the sign of the reviewer who doesn't mean what he's writing

A data analyst called Gavin Potter has examined hundreds of reviews of wine and found that while the use of very specific words like pencil, graphite, cherry and smoky often indicates wine of high quality, the pursuit of soft, inexact words like rounded, fruity and well-balanced will tend to lead you to the mediocre ones.

I'm sure he could do the same with music reviews. Unspecific expressions of mild approval such as tuneful, lively or well-produced mean that the reviewer isn't particularly enthusiastic but neither does he feel like saying anything downright negative, either because he's got something to lose or, more likely, he doesn't have a great deal of confidence in his own opinion.

This must also be how the wine business works, with the additional complication that here price is a quite good indicator of quality. The reviewer can't say what he really thinks of the wine the supermarket chain is offering at a moderate price and so he restricts himself to moderate adjectives.

People like to think that reviewers err on the side of negativity. The opposite is actually the truth.