Sunday, 16 November 2014

Tense

Not sure exactly what this mouse and frog who live in my mum and dad's garden have disagreed about but it's led to a very awkward silence.


Thursday, 23 October 2014

Good Log Story From My Dad

Was on the phone to my dad the other day. He told me a good story about a log so I thought I'd transcribe it. (My dad is 65.)

Friday, 8 August 2014

Theo, by Ed Taylor

On the whole, rock and roll novels don't work. Admittedly, I say that as someone who doesn't get on with a lot of fiction OR non-fiction music books (including the two I've written myself and summarily tried my best to forget about), but nobody wants to read a great rock and roll novel more than I do. Fiction and rock music are two of my favourite things in the world, so why wouldn't I? But I've found that fictional accounts of the life of rock musicians tend to either get tediously, technically lost attempting the nigh on impossible task of evoking the music of their fictional subject, or cheapen their story with lazy pop culture references or competitive anoraky namedropping. The few very good rock novels I've read (Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street and Zachary Lazar's Sway, for example) tend not to try to be a definitive rock novel at all; instead they creep up on their subject from a surprise angle, like small furry animals of unassuming appearance sneaking under its duvet at night and biting its toes. This is an approach at which Ed Taylor's debut novel Theo also excels.
   Theo is written in the third person but its story is told very much through the eyes of its ten year-old eponymous hero. The son of a rock star, Theo lives in a half-empty mansion in Long Island - rumoured to have inspired the mansion in The Great Gatsby - where he spends far more time in the company of his grandfather, Gus, and the hangers on and minders that accompany his dad's band than he does with his actual parents. Anyone who's more than an armchair fan of the Rolling Stones would have to be half asleep not to recognise the Keith Richardsian qualities of his ex pat dad, Adrian, who is thin, has bad teeth, carries knives around with him, and is often in need of "medicine". Taylor alters the era - we appear to be somewhere around the mid-80s here - but many of the details suggest he probably watched The Stones In Exile, the 2010 documentary about the making of the Stones' 1972 masterpiece 'Exile On Main Street': the mixture of drugs and family life, Adrian's nighttime speedboat rides, the stealing that goes on in the mansion under Adrian's (not particularly fussed) nose, the chaotic nature of the recording sessions, the sense of "the band" as an ever-growing open-ended entourage.
   This is very much a universe of Taylor's creation, though: he's created a believable rock and roll amoeba, with its own unique quirks, and it never feels anything like Stones fan fiction. The prepubescent Theo is the perfect commentator on this universe: he doesn't yet fully understand what drugs and booze do to adults, and he's constantly frustrated that grown-ups won't give him a straight answer to any of his questions, but in a way his position of innocence allows him to see so much more. When Roger, the band's singer - who, in his sometimes somewhat cold and businesslike manner, is more than a little Jaggeresque - arrives, Theo describes his head as "a tower with someone in it who's just watching, always watching." This is a good example of the perfect balanced voice Taylor gives to Theo: his thoughts are perceptive and revealing, but always believably childlike at the same time. Theo's internal monologue is full of questions, none of which Taylor ever adds a question mark too - partly because he's talking to himself but perhaps also because Theo has given up on ever getting an answer from the feckless, baked, sex mad adults surrounding him.
   In the end, Theo is a way for Taylor to show us just what children wealthy rock stars are themselves, or at least were during the era of the book's setting: suspended forever in consequence-free childhood, pretending to have responsibilities but knowing deep down they have none, always with an adult figure on hand (lawyers and bodyguards, in their case, rather than parents) when they mess up. Theo often feels alone running around the big mansion, looking for people to play with or come and look at his butterfly collection, and finding that they are too busy having sex or getting high to do so, but there's something in the low attention span swiftness of his movements that mirrors those of the adults around him. The book only takes place over the course of  a few days, but everyone seems to be constantly forgetting what they were doing and moving to a new position. People are on a couch, then they're in the kitchen, then they're jumping in the sea, then they're back on a balcony, then they're going to eat, then they've forgotten to eat after all, then they're playing volleyball on the beach. There's a blurry propulsion to the narrative that feels like the blurry propulsion of a long drunken night being pieced back together.
   Clearly, in all but a few ways, this is not a healthy environment for Theo. His parents can barely look after themselves, let alone him. His dad's litany of irresponsible parenting is only slightly ameliorated by his self-mocking awareness of it, and his mum comes across at best as an adolescent babysitter who keeps running after ice cream vans and forgetting her charge. It is, however, to the book's credit that it never seems like it's casting judgement on the lifestyle it depicts. The picture that emerges is appalling and attractive in equal measure (the first thing I did when I finished it was put Exile On Main Street on my turntable, loud).
   At the time of writing, Theo, which came out in April, languishes somewhere in the four hundred thousands on the amazon uk chart, without a single customer review to its name. This is a crime that could be roughly equated to The Stones releasing, say, 'Aftermath', and the world resoundingly failing to give a fuck (I won't say 'Exile' because Theo is a greener, less sprawling and textured work than 'Exile'). Except it's a worse crime than that because, let's face it, in most instances books take more effort to write than albums take to make. I don't use this blog for book reviews as a rule, but Theo has been on the shelves too long for a newspaper's Literary Editor to commission me to write a paid review of it, and the thought of it drifting into obscurity makes me want to break into WH Smiths and tip custard all over the 3 for 2 section. Admittedly, it has its flaws (the copy editor needed to be a fair bit more thorough when checking for typos, for example), but anybody who is interested in rock music, great writing or remembering what it felt like to be ten needs to read it. If we were together in person, I'd be grabbing your shoulder, ordering you to stop whatever you were doing, and thrusting it into hand. So try to see this - me writing this, for no money, when I've got lots of other stuff I should be doing - as a virtual way of me doing the same. Are you imagining me grabbing you? Ok. Are you holding the book? Good. Now go and find a quiet place and read this rare thing: a properly excellent novel about rock and roll.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Wake Up The Moths by Matt Deighton - a lost folk horror classic


“Ghost folk,” was the term that sprang to mind the first time I heard Wake Up The Moths, Matt Deighton’s fourth and finest (to date) solo album. There are a few rare records whose ambience is so powerful (I’m thinking immediately here of Exile On Main Street) that they seem to carry with them a strong, palpable sense of the place where they were recorded, and Moths instantly seemed like one of them. I was thinking, as I heard it: “old farmhouse, no central heating, cold floors, river out the back, former tenant deceased in suspicious circumstances.” I had no idea, at this point, that the album had been recorded over a number of years, in several different locations, nor that the house where Matt was living at the time, in Woodford, Essex, was haunted: an old terraced house with an air raid shelter in the garden and its own spectral black cat. A place where objects mysteriously vanished, and disembodied voices called both Matt’s and his ex-wife’s name.
   Actually, I didn’t know much at all about Matt at that point. I’d barely heard his work with Mother Earth, and had been introduced to him six years previously via his second solo album, You Are The Healer, a funkier, modern answer to John And Beverley Martyn’s wonderful Stormbringer and The Road To Ruin LPs. There was no PR working on Wake Up The Moths and, having not hesitated for a second to pay £15 for it in the Norwich branch of HMV (remember when we still paid that much for CDs?), I immediately rushed home and called my editor at Observer Music Monthly, who commissioned me to review it. 
   I still stand by most of what I said in my review from May, 2005: that, while the songs on Wake Up The Moths sound like they’ve been recorded in a haunted farmhouse, they have the sweet, hazy feel of having been composed just before dusk on a river bank. If anything, though, my measly four out of five star rating did it a disservice. It’s a record that’s sounded that bit more magical and spooky with the passing of every one of the eight years since: something that Matt, who’s always been interested in the idea of albums improving with age, the bedrock of whose record collection is folksy mavericks unappreciated in their own time, had no doubt always hoped for. It’s easily his darkest work: his ‘Pink Moon’, his ‘Heart Food’. The difference being that, fortunately, unlike the creators of those particular ominous twilight masterpieces, he is still here long after the album’s original release, making music.
   “My plan was to make a really great record, then disappear in some way,” Matt told me recently. “I’d split up with my wife, and I’d not long come off tour with Oasis, where there’d been a lot of bad stuff going on, that I didn’t quite realise at the time.” Even the cover versions on the album - Bill Fay’s Release Is In The Eye or Brian Protheroe’s Pinball, for example - tend towards an imagery of exhaustion and domestic desolation: empty fridges and cobwebs. Asked to use two words to describe his mood when making the record, he says “really upset”. By the time I struck up a friendship with him, the following year, he was in a happier place, and recording with Chris Sheehan as The Bench Connection. Chris and Matt kindly let me use the Bench Connection’s music for an experiment I was doing on myspace for The Sunday Times about the indelible connection between people’s love of music and their love of the stories surrounding it. It’s a great measure of the timelessness and mystery of Matt’s songwriting that when I presented his and Chris’ songs under the guise of Son Of Bench, an unfeasibly obscure and deeply tragic seventies singer-songwriting duo whose work had been rediscovered by a family member, none of Son Of Bench’s new fans questioned the veracity of their legend. 
   As I’ve got to know Matt better, I’ve simultaneously admired and worried about his pure, anti-self promotion approach to his art: something that no doubt adds hugely to your listening experience as a fan of his work, but is also a little frustrating, when you want to see a friend eat and live well, and get his critical and commercial dues. For several years, Matt’s linkless website featured nothing but a photograph of him asleep on a sofa. It’s only now that he has made his first, tentative steps onto Twitter. So far he’s tweeted twice in two months. Both tweets were replies.
   Not that Matt hasn’t made music with enormous commercial potential. His third album, 2001‘s The Common Good, is full of the kind of from-the-heart electric anthems Noel Gallagher might have made with six times the talent and an infinitely better record collection. It seemed to have “Radio 2 playlist” written all over it, but bafflingly remains Matt’s least-heard work. This is another frustration of being a fan of Matt: that his music seems like a vastly more special, honest and powerful version that made by the more famous musicians he’s played for as a session guitarists, yet receives hardly a fraction of the accolades. Is it any surprise that, after making an album as great and absurdly unheralded as The Common Good, he retreated into the lo-fi, haunted rooms and fevered imagery of Wake Up The Moths? 
   Matt calls Wake Up The Moths “a little more candle, a little more incense” than The Common Good, which is something of an understatement. It’s the sound of The Common Good taking off a big duffle coat and a couple of layers of knitwear, cutting the phone line, and lying on bare floorboards, reading an anthology of MR James stories. Matt had already attempted to make a “folk horror” album of sorts - a musical equivalent to the atmosphere found in early 1970s British films such as The Wicker Man and Blood On Satan’s Claw, and the BBC’s Christmas MR James dramas of the same period - with Villager, the first album he made on his own, after his departure from the Acid Jazz band Mother Earth, but it’s on Wake Up The Moths that he really achieves it, and not just because of the dialogue samples he uses from the BBC’s adaptations of The Treasure Of Abbott Thomas and The Stalls Of Barchester, and 1974‘s obscure, Donald Pleasence-starring Amicus anthology film From Beyond The Grave. Its whispery atmosphere makes Villager seem positively sugarcoated by comparison. Many have been the times over the last eight years that I’ve been driving through an eerie part of the British landscape - that particularly haunting part of the Lincolnshire fens east of The Wash, or the deserted, post-apocalyptic, Jamesian stretch of Suffolk coast directly south of Lowestoft - and wanted to write my own rural horror film around it. I imagine it to be a slow-moving one, with no gratuitous violence or gore, but where the atmosphere steadily builds and stays with you after the closing credits - even, perhaps, to the extent that it becomes a little, magical, spooky part of you forever.