Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Halloween Party

The storm woke me at three in the morning, and of course my first thought was that some of the cats were still outside. Being cats they would have found shelter, and would most likely all be huddled together on the porch, staring wide-eyed into the torrential darkness. We're in the city, but you could be fooled into thinking otherwise after sun has set. We have street lighting, but not much of it, and our houses are all built some way apart because if Texas has anything in abundance, then it's room in which to sprawl. The darkness can sometimes seem profound, a somehow more fundamental prospect than the harsh sodium orange of English cities after dark.

Anyway, I got out of bed to let them all in. The rain was briefly deafening as I held the porch door, something approaching Biblical volume. This was not of itself unusual. South Texas rainfall is either a misty drip or chapters six and seven of the Book of Genesis.

This brief rising was enough to disrupt my sleep, and so I wake late on the morning of October the 31st - Halloween. It's Saturday so I do my usual stuff, just a little later than is my general habit. I head out on my bike for the sake of exercise but some of the trail is underwater, as it tends to be for a day or so in the wake of a storm. Towards the end of the afternoon we get ourselves ready for Byron's Halloween party. Ordinarily we would have taken Junior out trick or treating - a tradition which makes a lot more sense to me now that I live in the US - but it seems pretty clear that trick or treat will be most likely rained off this year.

In England I recall the conspicuously imported tradition as either pitiful or annoying, depending on whether you're the kid scouring street after freezing street looking for just one house where it doesn't look like they'll tell you to piss off, or whether you're the disgruntled resident either ignoring the knock at the door or else telling the caller to piss off. It doesn't really make sense unless nearly everyone is involved, and so we usually take Junior over to Alamo Heights where entire streets become the sets for Universal horror pictures of the thirties for just one night, lawns covered with fake tombstones, inflatable zombies, life-size plastic skeletons dangling from every branch, and usually the resident family of witches, werewolves, and Frankensteins sat waiting on the porch, ready to dish out the sweeties. The tradition is frankly ludicrous, and that's kind of the point, and what makes it so enjoyable, weather permitting.

Junior isn't his actual name, but it's what I call him on the internet for the usual reasons. Byron is his father, or my wife's first husband if you prefer. I never imagined that we would get on, but Byron is one of those people whom it's very difficult to dislike, no matter how hard you try. Were the two of us to find ourselves trapped in a lift for a couple of hours, we might struggle for conversation after thirty minutes or so, but this is only to acknowledge our differences and should not be taken as a judgement of character. I've never been a party animal, and Byron tends to throw parties with some frequency simply because he's a naturally generous guy. He likes to be surrounded by people, and he likes to see that everyone is enjoying themselves; and so once again I am forcing myself to move in the general direction of a party. It seems like the right thing to do.

Junior has decided he is going as an empty child from Doctor Who, essentially a sinister schoolboy in a gas mask from wartime London. The three of us are also chalked up to attend a comic book convention in Durham, North Carolina later in the month, so Junior's Halloween costume will get several outings. Bess ordered a gas mask through the mail and we were able to cobble together just enough of the right sort of clothing to pass him off as a schoolboy of fifty years past from a different country. He looks pretty good.

We get into the car and drive to Byron's house, a journey of a mile or so through Alamo Heights. Junior sits in the back, gas mask pushed up to his forehead, building on his empty child routine - variations on are you my mummy?, which the creature asks over and over in the television show. I've find the most recent era of Doctor Who irritating and so have to walk a fine conversational line, engaging with the boy without succumbing to my customary sarcasm.

'You know, that costume could probably work just as well if you'd decided to go as Harry Potter,' I suggest.

There is a pause of the usual length as Junior's gears grind out some fresh observation. They're not all gems, or anything like as funny as he thinks they are, but he's on top of his game this time.

'Then I'm going as the Empty Harry Potter.'

We chuckle for the rest of the journey as the boy overeggs this latest pudding, hammering the joke into the ground - despite which it remains funny.

The rain is coming down again, and we are the first to arrive at Byron's house.

'Are you my mummy?' Junior enquires in greeting.

'Come in,' says his father, sighing.

Each table, ledge and mantle piece, every surface but for the one on which the food is arranged is home to some horror novelty. Plastic spiders hang from the ceiling, and an entire town of tiny Lovecraftian dwellings runs along the sideboard, each one sheltering some gruesome animatronic scenario within its illuminated interior, like Insane Clown Posse versions of the nativity. Plastic skulls sit on top of cabinets and cupboards, motion sensors prompting each to its own gruesome pre-recorded promise from beyond the grave as we pass. We load our plates with cheese, sausage, olives and the like, and stand munching at the hatch while Byron labours within the kitchen, preparing more for his guests to eat when they arrive. It turns out that we are actually a little early.

Mickey and Minnie Mouse arrive. Minnie is very convincing, although Mickey seems more like some guy Byron might know from either rodeos or barbecue tournaments who just happens to be out in mouse ears on this one occasion. Byron runs a barbecue team. They have a couple of trailers and turn up to cook at all sorts of public events. His cooking is impressive and he's won a string of awards.

Next to arrive are Duffman, the beer-themed superhero from The Simpsons, and a day of the dead Muertita, apparently also a local television newsreader, although I probably wouldn't recognise her even without the skeletal face paint.

Bess, Minnie, and myself sit at the hatch on tall stools as the kitchen fills with barbecue experts. There is a large flat-screen television mounted high up on the kitchen wall and it's tuned to a barbecue programme with some guy making a pit out of an old propane tank. The men assembled in the kitchen have all fallen silent, as they watch the propane tank being sawn in half. I realised that I too am transfixed by this, and have even begun to consider the practicalities of making culinary equipment out of an old propane tank. I think this means I've gone native, which I suppose isn't too surprising given that I've been here nearly five years.

Minnie rolls her eyes as the guy on the screen works his retractable tape measure and goes into unnecessary detail.

'That's so anal,' she observes.

'You like what?' Mickey deadpans his comic concern with perfect timing.

At least three of us burst out laughing.

Crash. Crash. Crash.

A skeletal Halloween version of the toy monkey who bashes a couple of cymbals together does its thing at the far end of the lounge, possibly activated by the sudden laughter. We are all momentarily startled.

'You made the monkey clap!' Minnie scolds her husband.

Bruce and Lori are next to arrive. They have come as characters from The Maltese Falcon. The next few guests are people to whom I've almost certainly been introduced at some point or another but can't quite remember in detail, even were I able to recognise them behind the face paint. They are a vampire accompanied by the Black Widow from the Avengers, and then it all becomes confusing and crowded. We leave, feeling a little more stuffed than seems healthy, but happy to at least have made the effort. A flood warning is issued on the news channel, and we are home just before nine.

Friday, 25 December 2015

The Christmas Concert

Having once been described as one of London's top two-thousand guitarists, I experienced an unfamiliar swell of pride the day Junior, now twelve years of age, brought an acoustic guitar home from school.

'He has to practice,' my wife told me. 'It's part of his homework, to practice for fifteen minutes. He'll be playing in the school concert at Christmas.'

The song Junior was required to practice was called How Much Longer Do I Have to Do This? It was an improvised piece performed by slashing away at the strings as hard as possible with a plectrum so as to produce a sound not unlike that heard on a Derek Bailey record, whilst holding down an occasional note with fingers of the other hand. Additionally the piece required that Junior purse his lips causing his two front teeth to protrude, puff out his cheeks, and go cross-eyed whilst playing, maintaining this special comedy face for the duration of the work, excepting pauses during which he would call to Bess how much longer do I have to do this? or how long has it been? or is it fifteen minutes yet?

I've come to dislike the special comedy face because it usually serves as a substitute for the sort of ordinary human interaction one might reasonably expect. It says I'm not going to answer the question or return the greeting but here, check this out - I think you'll agree that it's pretty darn funny. He pulled the special comedy face on my first day of married life, seven in the morning in the kitchen the day after the wedding. 'Good morning,' I said.

He pulled the special comedy face, stood far too close to me and jumped up and down in the certainty of this being hilarious, because at some point someone had told him that it was, and he hasn't listened to any of the less favourable reviews given since.

'Go away,' I suggested.

Bess explained that the avant-garde nature of his guitar recital was probably put on for my benefit, because he is yet to notice that the special comedy face doesn't really work for me. I retired to the room with the computer, the sanctuary in which I keep my mammoth collection of Doom Patrol comics and A.E. van Vogt science-fiction novels. The music from the front room settled into actual chords, hesitantly strummed, but impressive for a kid who had only picked up a guitar about a month before. I was fourteen when Santa first stuffed one into my stocking, and it took me two years to graduate beyond the bass line of Babylon's Burning picked out on just the two lowest strings.

I said as much to my wife. 'You know, he's not bad at all. I just wish he'd take it seriously instead of trying to be the great entertainer all the time.'

The next week or maybe the one after, he forgot to bring the guitar home from school, apparently having become accustomed to the idea that the point of other people is to remember things on your behalf, sort of like when Alfred reminds Master Bruce that it might be a good idea to fill her up next time he takes the Batmobile out for a spin.

Junior practiced on my guitar instead, breaking a string during a particularly energetic performance of How Much Longer Do I Have to Do This? I was displeased. 'I've been playing guitar for thirty-five years now,' I pointed out. 'In all that time, I've probably broken three or four strings. You've been going a month and yet here we are already.'

I bought new strings, dipping into Junior's allowance for funds, and he continued to practice. By December he still remained some way short of Segovia standards, but at least he no longer sounded like he was attempting selections from a Ramleh album. Now it's two Thursdays before Christmas and we're driving to the school. There's nowhere to park so we drop Junior off at the main entrance and head over to the adjacent park, one reputedly frequented by gentlemen who seek sexual liasons with strangers. It's dark, near pitch black due to it being seven in the evening and the absence of street lights, but no-one attempts sexual liasons with us and within minutes we are back at the school. The church - which is part of the same building - seems packed, so we sneak upstairs to the organ loft. No-one else is there and we have a much better view. It feels a little like we've broken in, like we are somewhere we shouldn't be, but there's no-one to chuck us out so we take seats. We sat up here last time I came to the school for one of Junior's concerts, so I suppose it should be okay. If we weren't meant to be up here, the door through which we came most likely would have been locked.

The pews are filling up down below, and there's a large herd of first graders fidgeting away at the front, green and red colours predominant. Everyone has been told to dress festively. Junior accordingly wears a red pullover with some sort of fluffy white arrangement up front and across the shoulders.

'There he is!' I point to the transept where a group of older kids, the sixth graders, stand around looking bored with their acoustic guitars. I notice how in his red and white top our man looks as though he's come as one of the Doom Patrol from this distance, specifically one of the Doom Patrol from when Paul Kupperberg was writing the comic. I quickly realise there's not much point in my sharing the observation with anyone.

I try to work out whether this is the first Christmas concert I've attended at this school, and what seasonal occurrence the previous concert I witnessed had acknowledged, but it's gone. I saw a couple of equivalent concerts at the previous institution, San Antonio Guantanamo for Boys as my wife and I refer to the place these days, and those were pure arseache. They seemed to go on for hours, and more than half of that time was taken up by the oratory of their used-car salesman of a principal clearly very much in love with the sound of his own adjectives. What is the magic of this thing we call San Antonio Guantanamo for Boys? he would rhetorically enquire with Disney brand sincerity before introducing a series of laboured skits.

'What do you want for Christmas, Lester?'

'Well I always wanted to go to sea, but I guess a boat would cost a whole lot of money.'

'You know, maybe we can all go to sea... in a Yellow Submarine!' and into the song, and it would be that for the next couple of hours, fail then cheese, then more fail and more cheese, then yet more fail and yet more cheese - jokes which wouldn't have made the grade on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-in, and the millionaires of Alamo Heights equating this with value for money with a degree of faith equivalent to Junior's belief in the special comedy face. So maybe the teachers weren't required to have any sort of formal teaching qualification, but all that filthy lucre must be paying for something good, and hey - they're singing Yellow Submarine! That is sooooooo cute!

Junior has been doing significantly better at this school, and no-one gets a headache when asked to attend events of this kind, so everyone is happy.

The first graders launch into song. The evening is a mixture of the traditional and the slightly cheesy but done with such generous spirit that no-one really minds; so we kick off with All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, or something of the sort. The only real problem is that the once traditional arrangement of kids singing to the accompaniment of their music teacher at the piano has gone out the stained glass window, so we have the little ones singing to the backing of some karaoke instrumental sourced from a laptop at the side of the stage. It's okay, but the percussion on the instrumental skates a bit too close to drum & bass and is as such difficult to ignore, so the whole is a little weird and tends to overshadow the children's performance. This is a pity because they're probably the most tuneful bunch of nippers I've heard, certainly a great improvement on the assembled atonal fog hornery of my own school days.

After a few more songs, we get Silent Night scored for just kids and piano, which is wonderful except that they've given it a different tune for no good reason I can think of. The point of Christmas is surely, at least in part, tradition and repetition and doing the same thing you did last year and the year before. Silent Night was fine as it was. It didn't need jazzing up or improving.

Then we get bell ringing, both traditional carols and a few of the more Christmassy hits of the sixties, most of the actual music unfortunately coming from a laptop; and I consider that this road will eventually lead to Christmas concerts in which we sit around and listen to a recording of Bing Crosby whilst a child stands on stage and tries to keep time with a tambourine. It somehow suggests a lack of confidence in the children.

Junior shuffles on with his guitar, accompanied by another seven or eight kids with guitars. They all strum as the choir sings, and seemingly in time. Then at last we get a song for which every instrument is being played by a kid stood on the stage, even the percussion. It's the Little Drummer Boy, and it lurches here and there with some kids hanging onto previous bars a bit longer than necessary, but it has so much more feeling than the karaoke numbers. This is what we came to hear.

We leave happy as the concert ends, just an hour after it began, and we take with us all of the good stuff - the sweet, clear voices of the first graders, the enthusiasm of the children, and the pleasing knowledge of our boy having done well, holding it all together without feeling the need to break out the special comedy face. Back in the park, our car is where we left it and no-one has tried to have sex with it in our absence. As we head home, we briefly shudder as we remember the days of San Antonio Guantanamo for Boys, and we are endlessly thankful for all that we have now; so seasons greetings etc.

Friday, 18 December 2015

When Marian Fell over and It Was My Fault

The day is here, Saturday the 26th of November and I'm beginning to wish I hadn't mentioned this to Marian. I might have come along just with Rob, or with someone else more attuned to this kind of deal; and we would have had a great time, probably - but then Marian would want to know why I hadn't mentioned it to her, and I'm not going to tell lies, saying oh I just stayed in or whatever, not this early on. It's November, 2005 and we've been seeing each other since September. She would have torn me a new one had I kept this to myself, so I suppose it's not like I had a lot of choice.

You need to take me places to keep me interested, she'd told me as though this sort of ultimatum delivered in the unambiguous tone of a threat were a normal, healthy component of a loving relationship, as she terms our union. I get bored very easily, you see.

Also it turned out that she knew Nigel of the group Nocturnal Emissions. She had lived in the same row of squats in Lilford Road back in the eighties, back when I first started writing to him and getting my mum to make out cheques so I could buy his records. It was twenty or more years ago, and here we are now in the twenty-first century. What a small world it is.

I say she knew Nigel, although what I mean is that she apparently knew him very, very well - you might say - for a short while. At least that was what she told me with peculiar relish. I think she was trying to make me jealous, but I just found it weird. She hasn't seen him since before I left school. I on the other hand have stayed in touch with the guy, and so he told me about tonight's gig here at the Slimelight, as it's called.

It looks like it was once a factory of some kind before it was a club and music venue. I would describe it as a converted factory, except there hasn't really been much conversion. The walls and floors are brick and concrete and there's no heating, and the next day clean-up is probably performed by hose, with a broom to catch the broken glass. The place is full of dry ice and the lighting is poor. It doesn't feel at all like a place in which you would experience anything musical, and I suppose it could be argued that we don't, at least not until Nigel emerges from the fog to take the stage, but that comes later. In the meantime we are stumbling from one room to the next in search of Rob. He said he would be here. The place is full of skinheads in combat fatigues and knockery goth women of varying vintages strapped into military issue lingerie. Everyone looks stern, faces twisted with dark, industrial thoughts. It's a little intimidating.

Mentally I am attempting to assess whether Marian has grounds for complaint, because I know she's probably going to kick off quite soon. I'm not exactly sure what tells me this being as her mouth puckers like a dog's arse even when she's happy. It's like a sixth sense. I will remind her that she told me I would need to take her places in order to keep her interested without expressly stating any specific type of place; and I will remind her that we are here to see Nigel and how excited she has been at the prospect of this meeting by her own testimony; and I will make some attempt to appeal to her Bohemian tendencies. She's always going on about how great it was squatting in Camberwell, hanging out with performance artists on the front line and all that, and how we are about to experience the exact cultural opposite of The X-Factor and Stars in Their Eyes. This will be, by some definition, the real deal. Just look at that cracked concrete.

Years later I discover that she dropped out of the Slade after about six weeks, and she can't actually draw at all. She is without genuine artistic or even creative credentials beyond having briefly hung out with artists. Her native environment would probably be making tutting noises over the profiteroles at garden parties in Twickenham, which
is I suppose why she's been rebelling ever since and why squatting seemed so exciting. Twenty fucking years - you would have thought that it would be time enough in which to perfect your schtick, but I guess whilst one may take the girl out of Twickers, it's another thing taking Twickers out of the girl.

We queue with the Judge Dredd extras, then we pay and go in and furnish ourselves with crap beer in plastic glasses which distort as you hold them, forcing the pissesque liquid up over the rim and onto the increasingly sticky concrete floor.

I love a party with an atmosphere.

The performers are Z'ev, Fckn'Bstrds, and Sektion B. Z'ev is doing his thing as we enter, rolling large metal objects around on the floor. The noise is terrific. I bought my first Z'ev record when I was still at school, and as I say Marian has led me to believe that she studied fine art at the Slade, so it doesn't occur to me that we, as a couple, are at any state of remove from what constitutes our comfort zone. That the first musical performance of the evening is a bloke throwing bits of metal around the room doesn't even seem worth commenting upon. Fckn'Bstrds - if they even played, and I'm not entirely sure that they did - make an electronic noise from the stage, fiddling with all of their little boxes and deafening us from behind the dry ice. Sektion B do the same but look more evil - camouflage gear and shaven heads.

'This is all a bit macho,' Marian observes during a break between screaming walls of feedback. She wrinkles her nose as though having noticed that Jonty has once again tracked dirt in from the stables.

'Yes,' I say, because I don't know what she expected. I told her it would be noisy and most likely involve a certain degree of frowning. I can recall no detail of my description which could have been misinterpreted so as to give rise to expectations of dinner jazz with a glass of white and some jolly old sandwiches.

'It's just that it's different for me,' she adds pointedly without actually referring directly to her own height. I myself am not tall, but the top of her head isn't even level with my shoulder. I guess she finds the fact of most people being taller than herself potentially intimidating, or at least this seems to have been the thrust of previous objections jabbed in the general direction of everyone else on the planet.

We encounter Rob at last, and - weirder still - Mark whom I knew at Maidstone College of Art, also twenty years earlier. Mark and I never really kept in touch, but we've run into each other at noisy events such as this gathering on a number of occasions. We can't really talk because Sektion B are deafening. I feel a little guilty seeing as Rob turned up on my invitation, and we hardly get to exchange three words during the course of the evening.

It's okay, he'll tell me a couple of days later, I knew you were with Marian and I didn't want to get in the way.

I will feel terrible, just some cunt abandoning his mates at the first sniff of anything in a skirt; but the truth is that I would rather speak to Rob or Mark. In fact I would rather not be here at all. I couldn't really care less about this noise. I couldn't really care less about seeing bands full stop. It's great when you're a teenager, but these days it's all two hour bus journeys crawling across London in the pissing rain to drink horrible overpriced beer and listen to music which sounded better on the record, ending with the horror of the night bus when it eventually turns up with its crew of angry drunken psychopaths.

Now Nocturnal Emissions are on - essentially just Nigel on stage with his laptop. The music is mostly from Collateral Salvage so it's approximately tuneful, and there are even a few people dancing. Against the odds, this small part of the club slowly begins to cheer the fuck up despite sticky concrete and freezing cold. We're standing on a packed dance floor in our coats, with gloves and woolly hats even, but at least the music is decent.

Nigel plays for about an hour, maybe a bit longer, and then  vanishes from the stage into a room at the side. Marian wants me to introduce her to Nigel.

'I thought you knew him?'

'I did, but it was a long time ago.'

Now I'm her PA, her personal assistant. We shuffle to the side of the stage, to a second doorway leading into the room containing Nigel and assorted noise musicians doubtless all busily snorting cocaine off photographs of Adolf Hitler. This second doorway is divided into two parts, upper and lower like that of a stable. I lean over and attract the attention of a passing skinhead.

'Mate, is Nigel back there?'

He effects a vague gesture, forming an excuse of some kind.

'No no,' I say. 'It's okay. He'll know who I am. Can you tell him Lawrence is here?' I'm aware that I sound like an arsehole, but I spoke to Nigel on the phone a few days ago so it seems justified. A moment later he emerges. Given that we haven't actually met in person since 1986 or whenever it was, it takes him a moment before he realises who I am; same with Marian, but the surprise is greater, a more unexpected pleasure. They stand yacking away for five or ten minutes, and I realise that I now really am just Marian's personal assistant.

How is Danny?

How is this person?

Whatever happened to so and so?

Nigel lives in Cornwall and has to leave because he's sleeping on somebody's sofa tonight. We also have to go, but first Marian needs to pee.

'Will you come with me?'

'What for?'

'Well, you know - this place...' She glances around. She is nervous. Some of these people are probably common labourers or the unemployed. Some of them might even be into drugs, and not the kind which put you in touch with the cosmos. I don't know if this is what she's thinking, but I expect it's a version of these thoughts shorn of anything directly contradicting her Bohemian self-image as being down with the working classes, black people, and the kids from the street.

'Okay,' I confirm without any trace of a sigh, at least none which could be used against me in a court of law. To be frank, I just want to get out of here. The longer we stay, the more something or other is going to be my fault. I already know that, Nigel excepted, she has hated most of the evening and is presently building up the case for the prosecution.

The toilets are suitably terrifying, more cracked concrete and splintered wood. I have to wonder if the place is legal as a venue, or whether somebody just broke in and set it up as one, except it seems unlikely given that the club has been around since at least 1994. Marian disappears into an empty cubicle and closes the door, holding it closed with her foot. I stand guard as specifically directed, watching the goths and the skinheads, reading the graffiti. I am a man hanging around in a toilet for no clear reason. I'm just following orders. I continue to admire the graffiti.

Behind me I hear the sound of Marian emerging. I begin to make some observation about that which has been written across the walls in colourful paint, but Marian is suddenly on the floor apparently having launched herself through the air. The fall looked painful. She's picking up her glasses and one of the lenses is broken. She has cut her leg and there is blood. I notice a crater in the cracked concrete just outside the cubicle from which Marian emerged, two or three inches deep and it's immediately obvious why she fell. She is spitting like a cat, violently shooing people away, goth girls stepping in to help should it be required. It isn't. She's screeching at me as though this is something I have done. I kneel down to help her up, to make sure that she is okay, and she is screaming at me. I am seriously fucking confused.

She's getting up telling me how stupid I am and how she doesn't need my help thank you very much. I have done quite enough already. I'm mentally replaying my inner CCTV footage over and over, trying to work out what I've done this time, but it's difficult to concentrate over the screeching presentation of the prosecution. I say nothing because I know any utterance of mine will now be wrong.

We get a taxi because there is no way I am standing at a bus stop for an hour in the freezing cold listening to the seemingly endless testimony of how shit I am. Why didn't I tell her that the Slimelight was a venue with massive craters in the floor? If I did not know this, then why did it not occur to me to call in advance and find out as to what sort of condition the building was in from a health and safety perspective? Why am I so stupid and selfish and why does she have to do everything herself?

Hello, I'm just calling to enquire as to whether there are any large holes in the floor of your venue. You see I'm very concerned about my girlfriend falling over.

Marian fell because I was in the way when she opened the lavatory door to effect her exit. She couldn't see and I was in the way, and she was distracted because I was talking, burbling on and on about nothing as I always do. She fell and in that moment she felt as though I didn't care, as though I was not protecting her.

I still give no answer because there is nothing I can say other than pointing out the obvious, that she is full of shit, and no way am I going there. I sit in silence in the back of the cab and take my punishment like a man. From time to time I say sorry because that seems to be what she wants to hear, although I'm pretty sure I haven't actually done anything wrong.

I am insensitive.

Marian was having the worst night anyone has ever had, and there she was pouring out her heart to me, and I said nothing for the duration of the cab ride because, as she points out, I am insensitive and selfish. Why did I not rush immediately to her aid after effectively pushing her over, causing her to fall? Where was I?

I point out that she was screaming about what an idiot I was and how it was all my fault before I even knew what was happening. I add that I am unconvinced of it being my fault, given my inabilty to control either matter or gravity in the immediate vicinity of my person by the power of mind alone. She doesn't even dignify this with a reply, and the fare costs me thirty quid.

Two hours later, she eventually concedes that she may have contributed in some small way to her own falling over in the bogs at a horrible club, and agrees that there is a lesson here, and that we could both have handled the situation better than we did.

Friday, 11 December 2015

A Conversation

Shaun, then marginally better known as a sound artist recording tapes under the name factor X, came to stay at my place on Lordship Lane, East Dulwich at some point during the summer of 1995. Jim came over for a drink and ended up sleeping on the sofa. Next morning, a little hung over, we listened to Ringo Starr's first post-Beatles solo album, a choice suggested by my having attempted to start my own religious sect based on worship of Ringo Starr as the luckiest man in the world and the true brains behind the Beatles. I pressed play and record on my tape recorder just as Shaun finished casting aspersions on my choice of music.

JIM: But you've got bad taste, Shaun.
LAWRENCE: Yeah... yeah...
JIM: Fuckin' square, mate.
SHAUN: Fair enough.
LAWRENCE: You will love these songs one day.
JIM: A lot of industrial bands owe their careers to Ringo.
SHAUN: But I'm not an industrial band.
JIM: I mean like what would Philip Best be without Ringo, you know?
JIM: Philip Best from Whitehouse.
SHAUN: Yeah, though he's a wanker isn't he!
JIM: He might be a wanker, but he's more successful than what you are, Shaun.
JIM: He's more successful than what you are.
SHAUN: Well success isn't everything, is it?
JIM: No, but it's something.

Silence ensues as we listen to the coda of Oh My My.

SHAUN: That's a nice bit of sax.
SHAUN: How old were you when you first heard the good news?
LAWRENCE: Eight probably.
SHAUN: Eight, yeah? Would you say that you were overly excited by it?
LAWRENCE: I remember liking it a lot at the time. It grew on me after I suddenly realised that Ringo was very good indeed. That was about two years ago.
SHAUN: Did you automatically associate Ringo with the Beatles or was it—
SHAUN: You didn't?
SHAUN: So then you discovered—
JIM: Ringo was the Beatles.
SHAUN: Well, yes.
SHAUN: So you discovered one song and then you discovered a whole backlog of amazing material?
SHAUN: Some things have happened to me like that. They totally blow you away.
LAWRENCE: I didn't actually like it all at first. I bought my first Ringo album a couple of years ago—
SHAUN: You had to attune yourself to the material.
LAWRENCE: I thought this is terrible when I listened to it, but I ended up loving it, much more so than with the other three.
SHAUN: A living and a dead legend.
LAWRENCE: But only a legend because Ringo wanted him to be.
SHAUN: But that's a technicality for which there is no proof. Paul may be a millionaire but Ringo is a millionaire every single day.
LAWRENCE: Paul is universally hated though.
JIM: He's just a useless tosser
SHAUN: But not by most people, the ordinary Joe down the street.
LAWRENCE: I think if they were given the opportunity to really think about it, they would realise that they hated him as well.
JIM: He should have been shot just after he brought out The Frog Song - you know what I mean?
SHAUN: We don't want to dwell too much on Paul McCartney
JIM: He's irritating.
SHAUN: George Harrison is also more successful—
LAWRENCE: You're saying Ringo isn't successful?
SHAUN: No because I myself have listened to late Beatles records and the drumming has been rather spectacular.
SHAUN: Loose, half way between jazz and rock, and a little bit of expermentation there because he's finding his own rhythms.
JIM: Well he's a cool dude.
SHAUN: He is a good drummer. There's no-one like him, I must admit. Some of the Beatles told jokes about him being a bad drummer...
LAWRENCE: There was a question asked, is Ringo the best drummer in the world? and John Lennon said he's not even the best drummer in the Beatles.
JIM: Yeah—
LAWRENCE: And look what happened to him in 1980!
JIM: The last laugh was on Ringo, you know what I mean?
SHAUN: How do you think Ringo would feel if you met him and you said you liked him as much as you said you did?
LAWRENCE: I dunno.
SHAUN: Would he just think you're a stupid little squirt?
LAWRENCE: Well he might do, and if he thought that, I guess he would be right, really. I'll go with whatever Ringo decides.
SHAUN: So if Ringo says go and kill yourself, would you do it?
LAWRENCE: I'd have no hesitation.
SHAUN: Really?
LAWRENCE: Yeah. No... yes...
SHAUN: I don't think that's cool at all. I just think it's a cop-out.
SHAUN: With the snacks did you feel the Christian thing like the host, where you're eating part of Ringo in a way, like the bread and body of Ringo?
LAWRENCE: Yes and no. There are salt and vinegar Ringos and there are cheese and onion Ringos. After eating the cheese and onion I found out that Ringo is allergic to onions, so I realised then that Ringo wants us to suffer as he has suffered. So subsequently I enjoyed the salt and vinegar much more because I realised that Ringo would have enjoyed them more, you see.
SHAUN: So there is Christian ideology behind a lot of this?
JIM: Jesus wore women's clothes. Ringo is totally different.
SHAUN: I'm sure Ringo has a dress.
JIM: But Ringo wouldn't do it in public, and if he wants to wear a dress in the privacy of his own home, what's wrong with that? Anyway, he's got far better dress sense. I mean would you ever see Jesus wearing a waistcoat? You wouldn't, would you?
JIM: You know where I'm coming from?
LAWRENCE: It's a good point.
JIM: Yeah.
LAWRENCE: The way I see it is that the Bible and all the world—
SHAUN: So are you two members of this Ringo fraternity?
JIM: No, I'm just a bystander. I will initiate at a later date but the time just isn't right for me.
SHAUN: Have you found Ringo in any way?
JIM: I've read the pamphlet
SHAUN: Yeah?
JIM: And it did move me.
SHAUN: It moved you.
JIM: Especially the bit on the back about Paul McCartney. That was a classic.
SHAUN: So would you say that you're getting into Ringo through the hatred of Paul McCartney?
JIM: Yeah, because Paul McCartney is a twat, ain't he, basically.
SHAUN: Allegedly.
LAWRENCE: Not to mince words.
JIM: I mean, married to Linda McCartney - that's reason enough to hate him, isn't it? I mean who wants to eat Linda McCartney's individual vegetarian pies?
LAWRENCE: I've got to admit those are quite nice actually.
JIM: But they're expensive. They're not nice because she made them though, are they?
JIM: She's just cashing in.
SHAUN: Let's try and get back to the—
JIM: No listen, I've got something important—
SHAUN: To get back to the—
JIM: No listen - a packet of Ringos—
LAWRENCE: I've just noticed there's a picture of Linda McCartney on the cover of this album, so obviously some of Ringo's greatness has rubbed off on her.
JIM: How much are your average bag of Ringos, like twenty-five pence?
LAWRENCE: Something like that.
JIM: And there's a nourishing meal in each bag; and how much is one of Linda McCartney's individual little tarty pies out of Sainsbury's?
LAWRENCE: Exactly!
SHAUN: Have you ever thought of using this man as your spokesman?

DISCLAIMER: Any suggestions of killing oneself in the name of religious belief, or seemingly proposing the execution of any ex-Beatle as punishment due for the recording of We All Stand Together, or indeed any other remarks of a threatening or insulting nature transcribed above were made twenty years ago in the general spirit of humorous off-colour banter and as such should not be taken too seriously by the sort of individuals or agencies who make it their business to take this sort of crap too seriously.

Friday, 4 December 2015

World of Sport

We were in a pub having a drink, very probably watching some band when three young men approached our table - two white guys and a skinny Asian with a leather jacket and long hair. They wanted a quick word with my drinking companion, Popeye the Sailor Man. They were forming a band and wanted to know whether he would sing for them. I kept a diary going for most of 1985 and yet can find no reference to this encounter, although I've a hunch it may have been Saturday the 23rd of March, upon which I noted:

Today I went to Rochester flea market with Popeye the Sailor Man and Olive Oyl. I found out that I am not so overdrawn at the bank as I thought, and by quite a margin in fact. That cheered me up. We visited all sorts of shops and places. I like Olive Oyl. She is a nice person, childlike without being childish. I also met Rosa who was also nice. She is a professional fashion designer who has been in i-D magazine and Look Now! I watched Doctor Who, which was ace, and went to the Good Intent to see the Product who were excellent. Some flat-top beer wallies were slam dancing at the front, although surprisingly there was no violence. Popeye the Sailor Man did an hilarious impersonation of the really fat one. Olive Oyl also came to the pub a bit later. I love Chatham. It is such an interesting and diverse place with nice people and no arty types.

Obviously this wasn't really Popeye the Sailor Man. The individual concerned was hypothetically my best friend from our course at Maidstone College of Art. He lived in Chatham, and I laughed at all of his jokes and regarded him as a musical genius. We had little contact with each other once our course came to an end in 1987, but just enough to have subsequently fallen out for stupid reasons, specifically either because I posted unkind remarks about his favourite television programme on facebook, or because I think I'm cool but I'm really not, or because I've failed to remain exactly the same as I was thirty years ago. People change and these things happen, and these days he may as well be Popeye the Sailor Man so far as I'm concerned.

To get back to the point, I was there when Andy, Rajun, and Alun asked Popeye the Sailor Man to sing for their band. The band was called Apricot Brigade and was, I suppose, something in the general direction of contemporary psychedelia - nothing so obvious as a revival but approximately post-punk with occasional nods to the Doors or the less ponderous regions of Pink Floyd's oeuvre. By way of contrast, Popeye the Sailor Man was himself of a more traditionally gothic sensibility, tending towards tortured songs of self-loathing, regret, and that feeling you get when you've drunk the last of the rum with two days to go before you hit port. Oddly, the four of them all seemed to match each other quite well, and Apricot Brigade became regulars on the Medway live circuit, even attracting something of a following.

Then at some point which I've failed to record in my diary, presumably during either the spring or early summer of 1986 - I was asked to join the band. I was already in a band - Total Big, with my friends Carl and Chris - but whilst it was a lot of fun, Total Big hadn't quite been the sort of band of which I had ever envisioned myself as a member. It was loose and conspicuously lacking in Joy Division style bass lines, and I'd always aspired to something a little more self-important and po-faced. I didn't really see why I shouldn't be in more than one band at the same time - although I later learned this to have been the cause of some frowning for Carl and Chris; and besides, Popeye the Sailor Man and myself had played together with some frequency in the course of our respective solitary musical dabblings at college, and so it didn't seem like my joining his group would be such a wild leap.

Alun Jones - Apricot Brigade's drummer - had gone into the studio with the Dentists - a more conspicuously popular Medway band - and contributed to the recording of their Down and Out in Paris and Chatham EP around Easter 1986. This had inspired some debate over Alun's loyalties particularly as the Dentists had recently lost their previous drummer, Ian Greensmith. It was probably also significant that Alun and Popeye the Sailor Man didn't appear to get along particularly well, which with hindsight I would attribute to Alun having been a fairly good judge of character, possibly excepting his friendship with Bluto. Amongst the solo recordings made by Popeye the Sailor Man in the sound studio at Maidstone College of Art is a track called The World of Alun, apparently named in a general spirit of sneering at that which he considered saaaaaad in some respect, the world of Alun presumably being a modest realm characterised by jumpers your mum knitted for you, quite unlike Popeye the Sailor Man's important cosmopolitan multiverse of existential contemplation and tortured poetry. I chose not to notice it at the time, but Popeye the Sailor Man seemed stricken by a pathological need to define himself by means of his enemies, possibly adapting to the fact that he made enemies fairly easily. This was effected mainly through drinking to excess in combination with shagging whoever seemed available, activities which tended to generate self-loathing on his part and open hostility in others.

Popeye the Sailor Man inevitably regarded Alun's jumping ship as a betrayal on the scale of that which it might have been had their initial encounter been characterised by some sort of oath drawn in blood; but on the other hand it also meant that Alun graduated to a better band, one which released records, and that I was presented with a new opportunity for scowling meaningfully before a paying audience in the hope of some of them consenting to sexual intercourse with me.

Of course the most obvious objection to my replacing Alun as drummer was that I had no drum kit and no experience of playing one. I expect this may have initially made me something of a tough sale so far as Rajun and Andy were concerned given that they had no reason to view me as anything other than the scruffy bloke who always turned up at the pub with Popeye the Sailor Man and laughed at all his jokes. I was to operate a drum machine, play keyboard, and help take the band in a new direction. I had the feeling this new direction was driven mainly by Popeye the Sailor Man, but I could be wrong.

Uncle Fester - as Andy insisted we would now be called - had its first rehearsal at his dad's house in Chatham on Saturday the 14th of June, 1986. We worked our way through five or six Apricot Brigade songs, shifting them around a little so as to accommodate my presence. Rajun provided me with a Roland TR606 drum machine and Roland RS09 polyphonic keyboard, in addition to which I played manual electronic percussion on an MPC Industries Kit and Clap. I also had a small four channel mixer and a couple of Roland pedals to beef up the otherwise unimpressive rhythms I was either playing or programming. Andy provided an ironing board upon which I could set up all of this equipment; and if I wasn't playing two fingered organ melodies or tapping the pads, I was out front drumming away on whatever bits of metal were to hand. This was because it was 1986, and we weren't going to be left out of the loop in terms of what Nigel Ayers describes as fashionable metal percussion in the sleeve notes of Nocturnal Emissions' Drowning in a Sea of Bliss album.

So the line-up of World of Sport - as was Andy's next suggestion for a name, and the one we really should have stuck with - was Popeye the Sailor Man on rhythm guitar and vocals, Andy playing bass, Rajun playing lead, and myself doing something else depending on the song. I was in essence a musician without portfolio - possibly excepting the musician element - and this was probably what doomed me to failure, namely that I wasn't really required to do any one specific thing, and it was sometimes hard to tell quite what was expected of me; and given that I wasn't quite sure what I was doing, I tended to take a back seat.

Nevertheless, it was initially fun, not least being in a band which sounded more like the sort of thing I would listen to at home, and less like the sort of thing which traditionally would have had me as a member. To point out that the songs were self-involved and lacking in humour is at least as much of a dead end as suggesting that the Barron Knights lacked gravitas; and Rajun was a great guitarist, and Popeye the Sailor Man had a great voice. It sounded at least as dark and serious as the Sisters of Mercy, without necessarily resembling them; and it was fun in a social sense as well.

I would cycle the eight or so miles to Chatham every Friday evening, stay the night at Andy's place, and then we'd have a rehearsal on the Saturday depending on the state of the hangover incurred by Popeye the Sailor Man. Andy's dad never seemed to be around, and I don't even recall if I actually ever met the man. I believe Andy's mother had left some years before, so it was usually just the two of us. It was odd and a little awkward - although not to the point of being unpleasant - because I didn't really know Andy well enough to be staying at his house with such regularity but he was the only one with a spare bed. His house was spotless, almost a show home, large and suburban middle class of the kind associated with sitcoms in which Terry Scott shits himself because his Rabelasian boss is coming over for tea on the evening of June Whitfield having scheduled a visit from their unusually prudish vicar. I felt vaguely guilty simply walking through the front door, as though I might abruptly find myself sans trousers and about to deposit a turd dead centre of the pristine living room carpet before I knew what was happening. Additionally, while Andy was generally both amiable and very, very funny, he tended towards the sort of quiet reserve which leaves you wondering what he's thinking, even when he may not be thinking anything, which did nothing to allay the fear that I might be imposing upon his hospitality.

On one occasion I stayed at Rajun's house for some reason, although it was less practical, Rajun's house also being occupied by his parents and his brother, Prez. I'd met Prez a few times and got on well with him, and vaguely knew their parents from the Blue Lagoon, the combined burger bar and music venue they ran in the high street. I didn't know them so well as to strike a casual attitude when crossing the landing in the middle of the night in need of a pee only to encounter Rajun's dad stood glowering in the dark in just his pants.

'Hello, Mr. Amin,' I squeaked pitifully. 'Just needing the er...'

Mr. Amin glowered and said nothing.

Maybe he was sleepwalking.

Anyway, ambiguous silences and nudist fathers notwithstanding,  I got to know Andy and Rajun reasonably well and grew to enjoy their company. Peculiarly I even got to know Alun whom I had replaced, and found him considerably more personable than Popeye the Sailor Man, which was strange and unexpected. Despite Popeye the Sailor Man being the one member of the band whom I'd known for longer than five minutes, I never stayed at his place, if he even had a place at the time. Let's just assume that Olive Oyl probably didn't want strangers trudging through the house waking Swee'Pea.

At some point or other, we settled on Envy as the new name. Inspired by one of Andy's more surreal monologues, I'd come up with a logo for World of Sport - a candle burning gothically atop a football, but Envy sounded a bit like Greed, which was an album by the Swans, so that was it. As well as a name, we had our first gig - Friday the 8th of August, 1986 at Pickwicks in Rochester High Street. We were support to a band called Robert Underwater, and according to my notebook of the time our set comprised Pale Orchid, Cut So Deep, an untitled instrumental, Cat & Mouse, We Will Fall during which Andy had some trouble with his bass, Twenty-One Years, I Yam What I Yam*, No Sound, Goodnight, and Howling Moon. I don't remember anything about it because it was thirty years ago and I was almost certainly drunk, although I have a feeling Robert Underwater all wore sunglasses despite it being night time.

Our next date was Friday the 29th of August, 1986 at Churchills in Chatham as support to the Strookas and Swinging Time. Our set comprised the still untitled instrumental, No Sound, Carmilla, Goodnight, We Will Fall, Twenty-One Years, I'm Strong to the Finish 'Cause I Eats Me Spinach*, Cut So Deep, Pale Orchid, and Cat & Mouse. I have dim memories of this performance being better than the previous gig, but that I felt vaguely ridiculous in my role, essentially an imposter. The other three were producing music. I was pressing buttons or hunkering down on the floor to hit an empty petrol can with a tack hammer; and I wasn't the only one having doubts. In my sketchbook, a note dated to Saturday the 30th of August, 1986 reports:

Andy has just said he's left the band. He may have changed his mind by the morning, although I doubt that he will. I'm sad, and I hope that he does change his mind, but I can fully understand his decision. It's all gone bad - very bad. We argue constantly, and so far as I'm concerned a drum machine should provide fast bone crushing rhythms that kicks the audience in the teeth rather than something which could quite easily be replaced by a metronome. Also I'm sick and tired of having to apologise to Popeye the Sailor Man for pissing him off by finding myself sick and tired of his shit.

Andy changed his mind, and we played another gig at Churchills in Chatham as support to the Herbs and the Martini Slutz on Wednesday the 3rd of September, 1986, possibly not representing a significant improvement because in my sketchbook on the following Tuesday I note:

I am in a band of which I don't really know if I want to be a member. It isn't fun any more, and that should surely be the most important part of it. It isn't even as though I add anything to the equation.

Murmurs about the worth of my contribution accordingly began to emerge, mostly voiced by Popeye the Sailor Man, and unfortunately lacking any concrete suggestion of what was actually expected of me beyond some nebulous definition of loyalty dependent upon my understanding of how lucky I was to be in the group, and how many strings he had pulled to bring this about. I'd seen him pull this same sort of passive-aggressive shit before, and was at last beginning to recognise it for what it was - just Popeye the Sailor Man playing divide and rule.

So I contributed a song, not a very good song, but a song nonetheless. It was called Said I Was A Reptile and it sounded like Portion Control impersonating the Cure. We rehearsed it once at the Blue Lagoon, in the basement which also served as bar and music venue. It felt like a waste of everyone's time.

The next diary-equivalent note to appear in my sketchbook, and the last to refer to the group, dates to Wednesday the 17th of September, 1986 and reads thus:

Today was my twenty-first birthday. Andy gave me a small baseball bat so I can hit things during gigs. Envy played at Churchills in Chatham with the Sceptres. Our set comprised the instrumental, No Sound, We Will Fall, Twenty-One Years, Cut So Deep, Pale Orchid, Carmilla, Sailor's Hornpipe*, Goodnight, and Cat & Mouse.

I'd found some more old oil cans on a bit of waste ground, the kind which would have held three or four gallons, and I pounded these with the baseball bat during whichever song it was we had decided would benefit from inept metal bashing. It was probably a novelty in terms of Churchills, but doubtless looked absurd to anyone who'd ever been to see Test Department. Another couple of rehearsals slid past, possibly even a gig I failed to note in my sketchbook, and the moment inevitably came.

We need to have a talk.

It had been a decent Saturday afternoon on Rochester High Street, possibly following some sort of Dickens related public festival - more or less a weekly occurence in that part of the Medway towns - and I was as usual lightly but pleasantly drunk. We all went to sit upon the grass opposite what is now the Tara Baker Hair Studio, and may have been the Tara Baker Hair Studio even then for all I can remember. I had assumed we were just going to talk about stuff, but immediately realised it was a sacking.

'It's not working,' said Popeye the Sailor Man, making it clear that this wasn't something to be negotiated.

'But but but,' I countered ineffectively.

Andy stepped in with unexpected anger, pointing out just how many weeks I'd had in which to scour local rubbish dumps for the sort of scrap by which I would transform Envy into a sort of Kentish Einsturzende Neubauten, and how I hadn't actually done this. In fact it was difficult to say what I actually had brought to the group, and obviously he made a good point.

I had no defence, and although I'd become accustomed to the passive-aggressive observations of Popeye the Sailor Man, these harsh words from Andy came as a complete surprise and a shock. I don't think I'd even seen him angry before that moment. Weirdly, I started crying, which probably didn't help my case. I felt ashamed because I'd really wanted it to work, but I knew it had been a waste of time all along. Possibly the others had also known this, but it had still seemed like it was worth a try.

They carried on without me, acquiring a proper drummer, and continuing for as long as any of the respective members could stand to be in the same room as Popeye the Sailor Man, each eventually and inevitably making it onto his enemies list for one reason or another. I have seen both Rajun and Andy since, and it was great to see them again, and to be able to have a decent conversation without giving a shit about that stupid band we'd been in. I resumed full-time pissing about in Total Big, appreciating it all the more having briefly gone through the misery of being in a serious band performing songs about what is to be seen as one gazes stony faced into the blackness of the human soul vowing that never again shall those shallow fools laugh at thine tortured musings as scribbled in diseased hand upon the cursed parchment of eternity...

You live and learn.

*: Not really.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Ten Industrial Albums You Must Own

1. Boing
Cellular Metempsychosis of the Black Angel (1995) 7"
Music and how we listen to it changed the day Boing released this lathe cut masterpiece in an edition of 148 copies in commemoration of Austin Osman Spare's residence at 148, York Road, Waterloo in 1932; or at least it changed for the 146 people who bought a copy. It had already changed for the members of Boing because they'd already heard the record when they recorded it. This was the sound of Boing's fridge humming through a digital reverb for seven minutes whilst David Farnsworth-Toppingham reads some bits out of a library book about Crowley, and the one who used to play tambourine for Flange has a wank over a plate of crackers. What visionaries they were.

2. Eggy Whacko
Facing Downwards Whilst Looking up Slightly When Someone Takes Your Photograph so That You Appear a Little Bit Sinister (1982) C60
Eggy Wacko took their name from details revealed during the 1981 trial of Peter Sutcliffe, namely that the bearded murderer had a fondness for eggy soldiers and that his favourite television programme had been Wacko! in which Jimmy Edwards terrorises young boys' bottoms with hilarious consequences. Eggy Wacko was actually Kenny Bollock formerly of eccentrically named underground outfit It's Just Down There but I'd Give It a Couple of Minutes If I Were You, and achieved minor infamy in industrial circles with Tibetan Arse Caution, a track which features swanee whistle sound effects by Quaker Oats of Thee Magick ov 23. These days Kenny is a Conservative councillor who recently successfully campaigned to have a statue commemorating Margaret Thatcher's victory over the lower classes erected in Thanet town centre.

3. Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band
Brass Accolade (1974) LP
Brass Accolade is a powerful album that captivates the mind with intense imagery of legions of soldiers marching towards battle. While some tracks bring forth the epic atmosphere of a proverbial rallying of the troops - such as the intro March - Brass Accolade  - others evoke images of a grand campaign being fought on the field of battle, such as Theme from Spartacus and Carribean Cameo. The drums scream of militaristic art and the layered synth behind it does a fine job of doing the same whilst texturing the music towards a neoclassical tangent. While some songs exist as a soundtrack for soldiers and the glories and horrors of war, others bring a certain element of mystery and touch base with the realm of occultism, such as the track The Gypsy Trumpeter, which evokes the images of the Third Reich and its secretive occult research group of the same name.

4. Gas Chamber
Rose Scented Tears, Mein Fuhrer (1988) CD
Of all Gas Chamber's classic recordings, this album was arguably the most ethereal and delicate with, so it is reckoned, as much as 25% more acoustic guitar augmenting their customary line up of trumpets and militaristic snare drum. Critics have additionally singled out this collection as simply exploring controversial ideas and imagery to a much greater extent than its predecessor, Reichstag of My Darkest Love, particularly with numbers such as I Saw a Jew One Day and Hitler Was Right (We're Not Joking). Usual terms and conditions apply regarding how you can't mix music and politics, particularly not whilst simply exploring controversial ideas and imagery, because that's censorship which is a bad thing and definitely not cool.

5. The Girls' Fannies
Crying Inside (1985) C30
Some might say an unusual choice given that the Girls' Fannies were so frequently described as a hybrid of early Depeche Mode and A Flock of Seagulls with a hint of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, but the devil is, as they say, in the detail, and apparently even in the details of every single song following the same four note sequence combined with Barry Fornication's consistently flat foghorn voice always recorded far too loud, and with too much echo even before we get to all those rhyming couplets about how you have to be yourself, and how you shouldn't judge a book by a cover, and how breaking up with a girl is a bit like being an army soldier in a war or something, amongst other allegories so ham-fisted they would have been rejected by 1960s Star Trek for stating the bleeding obvious; but Mr. Fornication briefly played synth for Nekrotic Sutkliffe Korps, and his Wicked Kool label once put out an album by Penis Sektion, so what the fuck - close enough, I guess.

6. Efficiency Unit
PE Teacher of Your Soul (1993) LP
Efficiency Unit's third album really put them on the map with the tender ballardry of its title track, distinguished by that unforgettable shoutalong chorus of reciprocate my animal urges for the future bounty of the race, and of course its bold new musical direction bringing together elements of hardbeat, blokestep, manstomp, and technoOi! No-one believed they would ever better 1989's Work / Obey in their pursuit of ruthless sequencer driven music by which to lift up extremely heavy objects whilst grunting before putting them down again in a different place, but they gave 110% on this one, and went so far that they sort of came out the other side and won a medal for it. That would probably be something to do with having the album released by Rio Tinto-Zinc, which isn't even a record label.

7. Creosote Famelicus
Qui Comederunt Omnes Pies (2007) CD
If it was south-east London's loss to see Smithy's Pie & Mash on the Tower Bridge Road close up shop due to a sudden fall of revenue, then it was neofolk's gain when the fire brigade found themselves no longer able to free Anthony Creosote from the studio in which he had just recorded Ego cum fricta Cogito Sumere, obliging him to go on a diet and record another album seeing as it wasn't like he was going anywhere for a couple of weeks. So here it was, another album of songs from the neofolk Gary Numan in which he did see numerous things described in the sort of terms with which no-one sane has bothered since before the reformation when all them blackies come over bringing foreign words like telescope and Puff Daddy and ruining everything forever, not being racialist or nuffink. There isn't much to distinguish this album from its predecessors, except perhaps that it simply explores controversial ideas and imagery with a ferocity which is unusual even by Creosote's standards, probably because he was gagging for a pie throughout most of the recordings, and the track All Salad Must Die allows particular insight into his mindset during these sessions.

8. Screamer
Rice & Peas (1997) CD
Screamer have never been shy of controversy as is clear from album titles such as Dedicated to Hermann Göring, Felch, and Tits Out For the Lads, although greater popularity has subjected their brand of confrontational electronics to less forgiving scrutiny in recent times, coming to a head with the provocatively named We Endorse the Klu Klux Klan and We're Not Being Ironic album, the attendant press barny being of such ferocity that Screamer's Donald Burns was forced to release a statement explaining that the title We Endorse the Klu Klux Klan and We're Not Being Ironic was ironic. Since then, the release of Rice & Peas, their somewhat unexpected reggae album, at least served to reduce the outrage to a more general sense of bewilderment. Some critics continue to cast aspersions on the sincerity of tracks such as Me Sat Next To One Pon De Bus and Dedicated to Derek Griffiths, but few can doubt that this peculiar combination of raging feedback and rocksteady guitar was breaking new ground when it first came out, even if Donald Burns referring to himself as I and I seems ill-advised with hindsight.

9. Jesus Bandicoot
Going to Church is Shit (2001) CD
Initially dismissed as a Black Sabbath album played at the wrong speed, this was the point at which Jesus Bandicoot really came into their own with their inimitable blend of industrial rock metal guitar and a slightly different sounding industrial rock metal guitar, to which they added a layer of a further slightly different sounding industrial rock metal guitar to transcend established barriers of post-modern irony with the hit single Gonna Industrial Rock You All Night, the first recorded application of irony to the initial irony of the work in question, meaning this actually may as well just be a Kiss album. What set Going to Church is Shit apart from all of the other industrial rock metal guitar records which may just as well have been Kiss albums was Alvin Bungalow pulling scary faces and flicking his tongue out in the video whilst bravely suggesting that TV evangelists and other representatives of established religion were in some cases hypocritical. No-one had ever considered this before. Everyone thought those guys were on the money until Alvin pointed out just how wrong we were. Also, if you listen closely to what is going on behind all the industrial rock metal guitar, you can hear a tape recording of a man saying praise Jesus over and over. No-one had ever done that on a record before. Alvin Bungalow was the first.

10. Thee Magick ov 23
Piper at thee Gates ov Dawn (1988) LP
Whatever you may say about Thee Magick ov 23, they're never predictable, except when one predicts that they will be unpredictable and they do something completely predictable just to confound you, and something completely predictable in a playful and subversive way which explores controversial ideas and imagery. They did it again here, doing the absolute last thing their critics had expected them to do by doing exactly what their critics had said they would probably do having recently covered an entire Pink Fairies album, song for song, more or less note for note, namely moving one page forward through the enpsychlopedia (a word cleverly invented by Quaker Oats of Thee Magick ov 23 by playfully and subversively combining two existing words) bringing them to the first Pink Floyd album, once again reproduced more or less note for note by a vaguely adequate group of session musicians Quaker Oats encountered in a Burnley working men's club. This recreation of an existing album is apparently a magickal act of some sort and is therefore very important, which is why the songs have some of the words changed so as to ingeniously incorporate references to the number 23, and also why there is a tape of a dog eating a steak in the left channel throughout the recording. Thee Magick ov 23 recently took this album to the stage, embellishing the performance with actual magick workings, with Quaker Oats having himself sawn in half during Thee Gnome, only to emerge magickally unscathed into the audience, inviting individual audience members to pick any card from a pack he magickally produced from the bass player's ear before launching into the song Chapter 23. Critics like them, but not a lot, but still the mystery remains as to where Quaker Oats gets his amazing ideas.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Sedona, AZ

I have a theory that modes of human thought are influenced by  geography to a greater extent than any of us may realise. I say theory, although vague assemblage of ideas might be a more accurate term, a vague assemblage of ideas which came to me as I noticed certain stylistic similarities between the art and architecture of the Classic Maya of Mexico and that produced by their very distant relatives across the other side of the Bering Straits in parts of Asia and northern China. The early twentieth century folklorist Donald A. MacKenzie saw clear parallels between Mayan and Asian cultures of such strength as to indicate pre-Colombian contact for which there is unfortunately no worthwhile evidence, despite the protestations of conspiracy theorists. However, looking at the art of the two unrelated cultures, you can't really blame MacKenzie, such is the apparent synchronicity of vision. My idea was that environment might influence thought in so much as that a society which develops in a river valley will yield persons thinking in subtly different ways - in certain respects - to persons of a society developing high on a mountain plateau; and maybe these divergent modes of thought are passed on by whatever mechanism in such a way as to mean that, for example, two very distant cousins separated by many, many generations, when asked to draw a sailor will both independently produce the image of someone who very much resembles Popeye through the inheritance of a shared visual language; and spoken language and the forms it may take prescribe what can be said and how it is expressed, so perhaps similar laws apply to thought and perception.

With no clue as to whether any of this actually applies to anything in the real world, I intuitively feel that environment really does exert its influence on human thought and ways of seeing. Having visited Mexico on a number of occasions, it has struck me that the pre-Colombian Gods - Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, Toci and the rest - make perfect sense in context of the environment from which they were born; or specifically, it's easy to see how someone might subscribe to a belief in that particular pantheon whilst wandering around Tepoztlan or Malinalco or Teotenanco, for these are spectacular environments. At least they were spectacular environments in terms of my experience, and whilst my experience may well be the false impression of a visitor whose eyes have not yet grown accustomed to the surroundings as commonplace, I somehow doubt this on the grounds that I continue to be impressed by mountains in a general sense, no matter how many I see.

Certain landscapes, I would suggest, are resistant to ever becoming so familiar as to reduce to wallpaper, specifically those which we usually describe as epic or panoramic by virtue of features which will remain forever at the periphery of human experience, craggy peaks, desert expanse, or great oceans - places we can visit, but upon which we cannot quite make a home, not without significant difficulty. Mountains and the like therefore remain distant, removed from regular human experience whilst providing an ever-present reminder of forces at work with which we cannot immediately identify, and whether geological or supernatural - it doesn't really make a lot of difference. This is why Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt painted what they painted in preference to parking lots or drinking establishments at chucking out time: landscape as summation of the sacred.

I've vaguely subscribed to most of the above at least since my parents used to take me on holiday to the lumpier end of Wales as a child, even if I didn't quite have it all set down in such terms. I was reminded of it when I visited Mexico, and again more recently when passing through Roswell in New Mexico. The marshy uplands as one leaves the town heading for Ruidoso, passing through fog sporadically illuminated by distant gas flares all equate to a landscape which seems unusually conducive to belief in extraterrestrial visitors crashing their saucers. If it's going to happen, you think to yourself, then it would make sense for it to happen here.

Of course, none of this accounts for that which is understood by both science and psychology regarding Mexican Gods, crashed flying saucers, or the emotional upswell of feeling which some may choose to describe as religious experience, but then I'm not really talking about either science or psychology so much as the human experience of a subjective response to one's environment, because that is the part which most of us understand, and that is the part from which mythology is born, mythology amounting to an intuitive understanding of one's environment for which the issue of rationality may not be directly relevant, at least no more so than it is to a Bierstadt landscape. Mythology represents neither a scientific discipline nor necessarily an objective representation of what we experience, but it can be helpful in describing what we experience given that what we experience is generally experienced as meaning rather than material substance.

To get to the point, I had enjoyed a memorable fortieth birthday in Oaxaca, Mexico with my friend Rob; and a similarly stimulating forty-ninth - the transitional year, I suppose - in Roswell, Ruidoso, and New Mexico with my wife; and now as I was about to hit fifty, it was to be the Grand Canyon. I've lived in America for nearly five years, and it seemed like due time.

We flew to Phoenix, hired a car, and drove the hundred or so miles north following I-17 up to the small town - or possibly city given my not yet quite having grasped the American distinction - of Sedona. The Grand Canyon is another hundred miles north of Sedona, but my wife had stayed in this place some years before and said the experience would be worth the extra distance, and she was right. Leaving Phoenix, the land was much closer to desert than anything to which I'm accustomed, characterised by scrubby plants scattered across the rocks and sand, creosote bushes and forests of saguaro - arguably the most fundamental of all cacti, the kind we all remember from cowboy films we saw as children, the kind we drew at school based on images from Little Plum or Desperate Dan. The terrain changed as we headed north, switching abruptly to a landscape more closely resembling our corner of Texas with familiar salt cedar and nopal cacti replacing saguaro so completely that it seemed as though we had passed some ancient horticultural frontier which no plant had been willing to cross. I suspect it was probably our elevation above sea level, climbing higher as we travelled north, up out of the burning desert to that which, like San Antonio, is merely scorching.

It being our birthday - my wife forty-four and myself fifty on the very same date - we pulled in at a Denny's restaurant, having heard a rumour of there being free food to be had therein on one's birthday; and the rumour was true so we each had a free grand slam - a dish pretty much constituting the last word in breakfast for those of you still to pop your respective Denny's cherries - which probably represented some sort of seminal moment in the history of mooching.

We got back on the road, resuming our northwards trajectory and gradually acclimating to it still being only ten in the morning thanks to Arizona being two hours behind Texas. The distant mountains grew more impressive, more cinematic as we went on, presumably geologically working towards the general thrust of the Grand Canyon, culminating in a spectacular splash of red rocks as we approached Sedona; so spectacular that we stopped the hire car and got out to take photographs and swear in appreciation, little realising that even this scene would come to appear humble in comparison to that which lay ahead.

Sedona itself nestles amongst red rocks, immense outcrops of heavily layered red sandstone, alternately craggy or made smooth by wind and water. It was like no place I had ever been, and those cowboy flicks of my youth - a good few of which had almost certainly been filmed here - hadn't done it justice. It felt like a rehearsal for the Grand Canyon, also like certain places in Mexico in being at similar distance from anything previously experienced; and similarly remote with mile upon mile of mountain or desert scrub upon which no-one had yet attempted to erect a billboard advertising car insurance.

We found our hotel and settled in, then went back out after a short rest. Sedona, so it transpired, is nothing like a town or city by any European sense, but rather comprises dwellings, restaurants and the occasional store - mostly of adobe - hidden away in upland conifer forest and arranged along a spider web of roads and highways following the canyons and rivers. It feels mostly like wilderness, and each turn in the road brings a freshly astonishing panorama into view. We began to recognise certain flourishes of hill or mountain by shape. Bell Rock is easy to spot because it resembles a bell, sort of; and then there's Snoopy Rock which from one angle roughly duplicates the profile of Charlie Brown's cartoon beagle reclining on top of his doghouse. Another angle reveals Snoopy Rock's close set and top-heavy sandstone columns, features which seemed to justify our briefly rebranding it European Dentistry.

As if all this spectacle were not enough by itself, the terrain is of such quality as to appear in constant flux, changing each minute as the sun drags shadows across the mountain landscape, eventually culminating with evenings of splendour equivalent to epic Biblically themed paintings of the nineteenth century - plunging river valleys sinking into sepulchral shade as high peaks shine like gold in the deepening blue expanse of the heavens.

Pardon my adjectives.

Back in the sixteenth century, the Spaniards inhabiting Mexico  encountered rumours of the Seven Cities of Gold reputed to be found in the north, somewhere beyond the Rio Grande, and being big fans of gold they sent expeditions in search of the same. Needless to say, none of the legendary cities were ever located, and one enduring interpretation of the myth suggests it may have been only a rumour springing from numerous
hopeful Mexica pointing northwards and saying, sure - go that way. Just keep going until you find those puppies. Another interpretation is that the myth springs from a misunderstanding of an early traveller trying to describe the Grand Canyon, and although Sedona isn't quite so far north, it could equally well have provided inspiration for the story.

In the evening we ate at a passable Mexican place, discovering that Max Ernst had lived in Sedona for a while - which makes a lot of sense when one compares the texture of many of his paintings with that of the landscape; and then we retired, exhausted by a twenty-six hour day of which the latter half had been spent in a state of near continuous awe; and here is why I began with a lengthy preamble concerning the influence of landscape on human psychology. Both my wife and myself found it difficult to believe that anyone could become bored of Sedona, such was our reaction to the place. It doesn't seem like one could cease to appreciate the mountains or the canyons or the spectacle of it all, and so it probably isn't too surprising that the town should have become a Mecca for new age types, simply because this is a landscape which demands consideration of forces larger and less easily quantified than oneself. This thought was underscored when we stepped out from the hotel the next morning and found ourselves immediately awestruck all over again, just like seeing it all for the first time.

The new age presence in Sedona manifests as shops retailing crystals, books, and related paraphernalia, or else offering services which probably must mean something or other to those who hand over money for tarot readings, channelling, rebirthing, having their aura photographed or whatever. Ordinarily I might have found such things quite irritating, but in Sedona they are at least an understandable response to the surroundings. One specifically local response to the surroundings is the phenomena of the vortex, or vortices - supposed natural regions of poorly defined energy one may encounter whilst exploring the wilderness. These regions are apparently highly conducive to meditation, and a guidebook on sale at the Sedona branch of Walgreens promises that deep thinkers will experience greater clarity whilst meditating within a vortex. The book contains a map should you wish to go looking for one.

I am a little irritated by this idea. It suggests persons requiring that their powerful emotional reaction to nature hold some deeper meaning. It's someone stood before a scene of sublime beauty  deciding that it isn't enough, that it needs a bit of that old Harry Potter magic sprinkled on top to make it really interesting; but then again, in Sedona it seems all bets are off, and I find myself thinking well, if it works for you, then whatever... It is difficult to maintain one's customary cynicism in such surroundings.

As with Roswell, I can see why people gravitate towards certain modes of thought in this setting, even that certain modes of thought might be considered appropriate, no more harmful than an emotional mapping of the territory, a means of description beyond the dry statistics of geology.

With my curiosity operating at a reduced level of cynicism I purchased several books written by Tom Dongo, a Sedona author who describes innumerable incidences of mysterious forces and encounters allegedly occurring in the region over the past couple of decades. He writes with a pleasant, conversational style and doesn't really seem to care too much who believes him, and whilst I'm not sure I do, neither do I exactly doubt his testimony, peculiar though it may be, and I nevertheless very much enjoyed his books.

Anyway, on the Friday we went to see the Grand Canyon. Naturally it was spectacular, and so much so that no description can really be adequate. It is something one really needs to see for oneself. That said, the Canyon has about it some disconcertingly underwhelming quality relating to its being somehow too spectacular. The Canyon is a mile deep in places and eighteen miles across at its widest, meaning that standing on one side affords a view of more earth and rock than most people will ever have seen and from an angle which may as well be above, and at a greater distance than is generally facilitated by the natural curvature of the Earth's surface; so the view is probably not unlike what you might see from orbit, the novelty being that it's down here and is thus viewed with the naked eye. The result of this is that you can't quite take in what you're looking at, and it's difficult to tell which distant outcrops or peaks are in front of others.

Bess and myself walked along the edge roughly to the point at which the safety rail ends before being driven back by vertigo. We could see teenagers messing around on nearby outcrops beyond the safety rail, taking their selfies on strips of rock four feet wide with a mile drop either side, and the sight alone made us feel ill. The information sheet we'd been handed back at the entrance reported a statistic of around a hundred deaths a year at the Grand Canyon.

We sat for a while, some way back from the edge, trying to ignore the woman on the next bench singing her whining improvised hymn to Mother Earth - sung out loud because presumably the words would be meaningless without an audience to define her deep, deep spirituality as visionary and against the common grain by regarding it as slightly comical, the unenlightened fools. Then we got back in the car and came home, or came back to Sedona given that it had already begun to feel like home; and we both realised that, regardless of scale, the Grand Canyon had been substantially less breathtaking than the place we were staying. Sedona works on a more human level.

On the Saturday we pottered around a couple of sites south of Sedona, the somewhat misnamed Montezuma's Castle and the hilltop fortification of Tuzigoot, architectural remnants of local Sinagua culture of the fourteenth century, and somewhat refuting the received wisdom of pre-Colombian North America lacking anything resembling civilisation.

Then on Sunday we came home, returning to the established here and now. Obviously there was more to it than only that which is described above, and the details of where we ate and what else we did were set down in my diary, but mainly because I am otherwise unlikely to remember any of it given the contrast of the setting in which it occurred. I've lasted half a century, and I've seen the Grand Canyon, and I've probably been changed in some sense by the landscape of Sedona. I probably could have said this in significantly less than three-thousand words, but sometimes you just have to go the distance with your subject, particularly when there's no map which will ever really do it justice.