Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tarquin Rises Up

A small, skinny bald-headed fucker listening to tunes on his iPod and carrying a laptop carry bag came looking for me at the place I was having breakfast. It was kind of my local, where I ate once or twice a week, and the staff knew me and could almost predict my order. Call it my comfort zone in the morning before I faced the day. It was not the place I wanted to have to dodge anyone much less someone who was there specifically for me.

The baldy came in, looked around, walked past me to the back and then turned around and came to a stop in front of me. I had just scooped up a forkful of perfectly scrambled eggs. He put down the laptop bag and removed the earpieces from his ears. He was bald simply because he'd shaved his head and, if I were any connoisseur of male pattern baldness, that he would soon be hairless for real. In a freaky kind of way he resembled Moby the American musician who once was a punk and then became a guru of electronic beats. The look could have been cultivated. Maybe he liked the idea of people doing a double take when they saw, wondering whether he was not perhaps that famous guy.

Baldy stared at me. I chewed my eggs.

"Hey," he said.

"Hi," I said. I gave him the raised eyebrow of 'can I help you, fucker?' but this did not deter him.

"I'm Craig", he said.

I was very happy for him.

"Craig," he said again as if I had not heard him the first time.

"Hello, Craig. Was there something?"

My eggs were getting cold so I had another mouthful while I waited for Craig to alert me to his mission status. He may have beamed in from Planet Bald-headed Freak for all I knew. I wondered what he had been listening to on his iPod. Maybe he was not only a Moby lookalike but perhaps he also only dug the guy's music.

"Are you still up for the thing?"

The Thing? The Marvel anti-hero from the Fantastic Four comic book? Or was it a thing in the sense you always hear Mob guys refer to the movies when they want to be clear as mud?

"Please sit down, Craig, have some coffee or something. Then you can tell me all about it."

"I don't like coffee. The thing ... are you in?"

In or out, out or in. Why must there always be this dichotomy of choice spelt out in direct opposites? Craig seemed like an overly serious and obsessed individual. Moby is or was a Vegan and I think Vegans are kind of kinky in the weird eating habits they have. It's not like I am a voracious omnivore but I do like my food non-organic and fattening at times.

"Look, mate, I do not know you. I do not know anything about your thing and I don't think I care too much about it either. What is your thing?"

Maybe his thing was nude disco dancing or steroid enhancement.

Craig was not a happy Craig. He was meeting resistance he had apparently not foreseen, which is strange considering that he was confronting a total stranger with some total crap question. I suddenly wondered whether this was an attempt at picking me up. Craig, you are just not my type, my dear. I prefer them slightly more hairy and voluptuous.

"Are you Carl?" Craig asked.

"I am not," I said, for I was not. "I believe you might have the wrong number."

"Why the fuck are you wearing a black T-shirt?"

Now, now, Craig, what has that got to do with anything? Of course I wear black T-shirts. All of the T-shirts I own are black in colour, okay, by now some of them are close to grey, but they were all black once. Maybe Craig is the Fashion Mafia representative in these parts. Guilty as charged. I wear black T-shirts. I guess I will soon be sleeping with the fishes.

"This is my fashion statement for the day," I said. "Life is bleak and tomorrow we die, or our loved ones die. I am a Black Metal fan. Back in Black by AC/DC is my favourite album. Paint it Black is my favourite grim yet catchy Rolling Stones tune. Black Consciousness is my favourite political movement. Enough reasons for you, Craig?"

"I'm supposed to meet Carl here and he'll be wearing a black T-shirt."

"I guess he is not here yet. I haven't seen anyone else in here with a black T-shirt while I've been here. Maybe he is running late, or was way too early for you. Sorry, kid, I am the best I can do for you at the moment. Pull up a chair, have something to drink that is not coffee and we can talk some more."

"Fuck, no," Craig said. "Weirdoes like you freak me out."

Craig re-inserted the headphone earpieces in his ears, took his laptop bag and went to a table at the rear where he set up his laptop and started messing about on it. He completely ignored me now. I finished my eggs and ordered a café latté and sat staring off into the middle distance for a while.

Just as I was about to drain the last of the coffee from my mug a tall, tubby guy in a black T-shirt and baggy shorts came in and sat down at a table between me and Craig who looked up and immediately perked up. My guess was that this new arrival could well be the hitherto mythical Carl. He looked like a parody of a heavy metal drummer with a long ponytail of dark hair and a stupid cap.

Craig got up and went over to the new guy and spoke softly to him. This trick worked. The two of them exchanged exuberant handshakes and the new guy followed Craig to his table where they sat hunched up around the laptop and talked softly amongst themselves. They ordered health juices from the waitress.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Oh, Death!

Tom Waits sounded old when he was young. Now he is old, he looks old and he still sounds old and even crankier than he ever was.

Kurt Kobain looked incredibly young, like a little kid lost in a world het never made. He sounded young and pissed off too. Then he killed himself and entered the legendary world of rock musicians who died young.

Buddy Holly set the bar for rockers who die in plane crashes. After him came Ritchie Valens, Otis Redding and some guys in the Bar-Kays, some members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Denver, who had the kind of career of a guy who ought to have died in his sleep, and Stevie Ray Vaughan who went all modern and died in a helicopter crash.

Keith Richards kept getting older and older, piling wrinkle on wrinkle and allegedly using his body as some kind of medical experiment, yet has never stopped rocking because like a shark has to keep moving, Keith has to keep rocking or he will die.

Lots of rockers, famous and not so famous, have died from all kinds of drug overdoses or the nasty side effects of taking too many drugs too often.

Eric Clapton too heroin and became an alkie, and survived it all and is now a senior citizen in the rock'n'roll old age home and like a veritable Keith-clone he keeps on playing the blues.

I was so angry when I heard Chris Whitley had died. I think he liked a drug as much as the next guy and perhaps a little more and then he shuffled off the mortal coil because his body forsook him. He was once featured in Time Magazine as member of a new peer group of American roots musicians who were harking back to old school blues and country music. Some said he wanted to make a pact with the Devil.

That leads us to Robert Johnson who is the most famous barely known musician in the blues field and one of the most influential too. There are only two known photographs of him. It took me a long time to get into his harsh, doom laden music and now I believe he is the modernist in music, the man who brought a backwoods music into the 20th century and made art of it. Not many White people ever saw or heard Robert Johnson perform live but lots of spotty teenage blues fans think he is a deity.

More grunge musicians, or maybe they were post-grunge, died drug related deaths, like Shannon Hoon from Blind Lemon, who died just when the band was starting to become really successful. He sang back up on some songs from the Use Your Illusion I and II double albums by Guns 'n Roses whose members were no strangers to substance abuse, yet only the first drummer was fired for being too untogether. Layne Staley from Alice in Chains flirted with disaster for a long time for succumbing. They were grunge before grunge took off, and I never liked their music.

The drummer from Smashing Pumpkins was fired for not being able to handle his drug addiction.

Danny Whitten, Crazy Horse's lead singer, guitarist and songwriter died from a drug overdose, as did one of their roadies. These deaths inspired Neil Young into writing a whole album of dirges that is still some kind of milestone of doom laden depresso music that not many people want to listen to voluntarily. The album, Tonight's The Night, sold poorly. Strangely enough, these drug deaths did not stop old Neil completely from taking a drug or two of his own. It is rumoured that when he went on stage for his turn at Winterland, on the Band's Last Waltz concert film, coke crystals could be clearly seen around his nostrils and they had to be airbrushed out in post-production.

Neil Young also wrote a song about the death of Kurt Kobain.

Bob Dylan took lots of drugs in his time. Speed, weed, LSD, cocaine, to say the least but he survived all of them and all kinds of airplane flights. He had a motorcycle crash but by now it is trite that the damage was inflated to give him time off from incessant touring and to allow him to get his head together in Woodstock so that he could write the songs on John Wesley Harding and The Basement Tapes. Late in life he had a kind of medical scare where there was some expectation that he might not make the age of 60 but now he and the Rolling Stones are way up there in the never say die rocker stakes.

Southern Rock had its casualties too though these ol' boys liked their weed and their Jack Daniels better than drugs, they were probably not totally immune to substances either. Back in the day everyone did everything they could lay their hands on. The thing of it is that the Southern rockers seem accident prone more than anything. Duane Allman and Berry Oakley from the Allman Brothers Band both died in motor cycles creepily close to the same spot and on more or less the same day a year apart. Younger brother Greg Allman was a bit of a cocaine hound in the Seventies but survived. He probably does not ride a motorcycle or is very careful when he does.

Brian Wilson is still alive, having long outlived his younger brothers Denis and Carl. Denis drowned, probably because he was wasted when he swam, and Carl died of a heart attack or something. Some say that Brian was de facto dead to the world for a very long time and that indeed his talent had died while he was still shuffling around like reclusive retard. Recently he has made a big comeback with some new solo material and his reworking of "legendary" Smile suite of songs that was supposed to have put Sergeant Pepper to shame but was never released in the form Brian's vision envisaged until his late period attempt to do it.

John Lennon was shot, cementing the genius legend forever. Yes, well, what did he ever do after John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, not to mention the Beatles years. Someday soon someone is going to take a long objective look at Lennon's creative output and is going to put the myths to rest, as Albert Goldman almost did, except that no one liked his attempt to put a fresh spin on the picture of Saint John so many people fondly hold. Lennon coasted on his status as Beatle for a very long time, way beyond his sell by date and produced a bunch of crap for his final album which only sold strongly because of his untimely death. As was the case with Elvis Presley, Lennon's death was the best career move he ever made in later life to secure his waning status.

Sadly George Harrison could not win his battle against cancer, which also goes to show that living healthily is no guarantee of anything in life. He also made some really crappy music after the purged his creative closer with All Things Must Past. I guess George was a great guy, who loved Monty Python and who could play a mean rockabilly guitar solo but he was no great shakes as a songwriter. No loss to the world of music, just a loss to the world.

I kind of like the idea that Bon Scott from AC/DC and John Bonham from Led Zeppelin both almost literally drunk themselves to death. Ron "Pigpen" McKernan from the Grateful Dead also terminally abused his liver. Brett Mydland, who followed in Pigpen's footsteps as Grateful Dead keyboardist also died from drug related abuses. Jerry Garcia was a long time dragon chaser and crack head whose heart could no longer handle the shit and gave up on Jerry. Now many remember him only because of the Cherry Garcia flavour produced by Ben & Jerry's' ice cream. Many others remember him as the resident guitar genius continuously on display in an endless series of CD releases of Dead live concerts.

One of the weird true death stories in rock connect father and son, Tim Buckley and Jeff Buckley who had rock careers several years apart and both of whom died too young. Tim at least had a relatively long career and left a number of fine albums behind while Jeff managed only one official, though wonderful, album and various releases of outtakes and unfinished material, and some live stuff. Jeff drowned; Tim mistook a lethal combination of heroin and morphine for cocaine. It is a moot point which death was the more tragic. At least Jeff Buckley had a very good looking corpse.

The so-called unnecessary deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin always loom large and seem to serve as salutary lessons in the price of excess and hedonism, but they were probably both completely accidental and almost incidental to the lifestyles of the two dead rock stars. To my mind both of them died at exactly the right time for their place in posterity. They had achieved the heights of stardom and their brand of creativity and who is to say they would have improved during the Seventies? I do not think so. Spare us a jazz funk obsessed Hendrix or a Joplin doing time in Las Vegas.

Brian Jones outlived his usefulness to the Rolling Stones and his meagre talent and there was really no future for him. Sid Vicious was a cartoon and had no purpose beyond his iconic role in the Sex Pistols. One cannot imagine that he would really have mastered the bass or become a singer-songwriter.

Jim Morrison went into exile in Paris to get his shit together and then died in mysterious circumstances to the extent, like the Elvis Presley scenario, many believe that Morrison faked it all to escape from the spotlight and that he is somewhere in the world writing poetry and fucking young girls. I bet the other, less popular members of the Doors are pretty pissed off about this. They had recruit Ian Astbury from The Cult as a make-do-Morrison just so they could hit the nostalgia trail and make some money again.

The late great Johnny Ace died from the after effects of badly played Russian roulette and inspired Paul Simon. Hank Williams died in the back of his car, body riddled with consumption, wracked by alcoholism and a fast life, and inspired a bunch of country stars and rockers, and his grandson Hank Williams III.

Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson from Canned Heat got wasted, laid down next to some railroad tracks in the winter and died from exposure. He was also depressed because he was really going blind. Some years later Wilson's cohort in Canned Heat, Bob 'The Bear' Hite died from a heart attack induced by obesity and an unhealthy lifestyle. Both of them were collectors of blues records.

Somehow Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf died almost peacefully after long lifetimes of playing first the juke joints, lounges and backstreet halls and then the clubs and stages of the wider White audience where they made more money in relative old age than in their younger days.

The biggest death of all is owned by Elvis Presley. He died too soon yet he died much too late. He had no more purpose in this world, yet his death served a greater commercial purpose than his life ever did and now the Elvis Presley Estate is one huge enterprise that never needed the Colonel to run it or steer it into profit. There are images everwhere of the young Elvis, the mid-Sixties Elvis, even the Aloha from Hawaii Elvis in his weird jumpsuit and cape. There are DVD box set of all his movies. There are endlessly recycled collections of his tunes. This is an Elvis universe and we only live in it. He's been gone for almost 32 years and people still see him everywhere in the most remote corners of the earth.

There is always Good Rockin' Tonight because Elvis made the breakthrough. Some say the music died with Buddy Holly, I say the music died with the Big Bopper.




















Sunday, February 01, 2009

Martin Scorcese Shines A Light On The Rolling Stones

The Last Waltz was the first Martin Scorcese movie I ever saw and Shine A Light, the Rolling Stones concert movie, has been the last Scorcese movie I've seen to date.

In The Last Waltz Scorcese presented a combination of concert film and biography of The Band's last performances before retiring from "the road" and becoming a strictly recording unit, although it really meant the end of the group as a functioning entity. Shortly thereafter the individual members went their own ways and if the Band still kind of functioned after that, it was without Robbie Robertson and then Richard Manuel and Rick Danko died.

The thing was that the guys in The Band felt that 15 years of touring was enough already. Compare that to the Rolling Stones who have been going for over 40 years and have never had enough of "the road." Mick 'n' Keef are well past 60 and still wanna rock like the young studs they once were. It should have been a lesson to The Band: maybe staying on the road keeps the group going, keeps you alive (provided you control your substance intake) and acts like and elixir of eternal youth. I guess it also helps that Rolling Stones tours are massively profitable affairs for the 4 official members of the band.

Marin Scorcese is not the first moviemaker to film the Stones doing what they do best. If you want to see the Stones on stage, you can watch Gimme Shelter, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones, the DVD of performances from the Bridges to Babylon tour and the Four Flicks multi-DVD set of shows from the Forty Licks. There is actually a lot of footage of latter day live Stones, all wrinkled and desiccated, yet rockin' like demons. Perhaps Keith Richards does believe he can keep old age and death at bay by furiously riffing away in as many locations as possible.

It seems to me that since the turn of the millennium Scorcese divides his attention between "proper" movie projects and musical subjects. There is the series of documentaries about the blues under the banner "Martin Scorcese presents ..." and the No Direction Home Bob Dylan biography of the early iconoclastic years of Dylan's career. This way of going about making documentaries must be like new journalism, where you apply the methodology of making a fiction film to making a factual film. There is no reason why the documentary cannot be as arty as the fiction movie and if you can bring your own stamp to it, you edify the subject and subject matter, in the way serious writers like Norman Mailer and Truman Capote brought literary weight to journalism.

Scorcese wants to be super prepared to film a bunch of old guys rocking out on stage and his concern for finding out what the set opener will be, is almost a parody of comic fear of failure. Scorcese wants to make the best concert film ever and he cannot stand the idea of leaving part of his sphere of control to the subjects he is filming. The Rolling Stones have a huge back catalogue of songs, many hits and many obscurities and can probably play several shows without having to repeat any song, so why is it so important for Martin Scorcese to know exactly which song will open the show?

As it is, the Stones open with a hoary old warhorse, Jumping Jack Flash, and then present a set that mixes well-worn favourites with some relative obscurities, particularly favouring Some Girls and Tattoo You as their nods to the most recent work, and ignoring anything they've done since 1980. This is a festival set, in fact a charity set, and not a concert in support of a latest album so they feel no need to showcase anything the audience would not know by heart if they have been Stones fans over the past 40 plus years.

I guess I am not alone when I say that the Stones tunes I like best all stem from the Sixties and early Seventies, up to (at best) It's Only Rock'n'Roll, but the last of their albums that I truly like as a whole is Exile On Main Street. From then on there are a number of great Stones tunes but there are no studio albums where I can say I unreservedly like the entire thing. Stripped is a good album with some unusual choices in tunes, but it consists of live recordings, and that is about where I drew the line with the post-Eighties Stones. Voodoo Lounge and A Bigger Bang both have the odd decent rocker and some nice ballads but the problem for me with the listening to these albums is that it all sounds too much like the guys going through the songwriting motions of professionals who have perfected the craft part of the deal but no longer have anything left for the art part. The youthful enthusiasm and brio are long gone; all that is left is the necessity to fill up an album with tunes to comply with record company demands and to have something to tour behind so that nobody can say the Stones are nothing but a nostalgia act. The Stones no longer have to release albums of new stuff and perhaps they should not.

Shine A Light is an excellent showcase for the band in its autumn years, refusing to go quietly into that good night, and of how far it has gone in becoming part of the establishment it once eschewed and railed against. Many years ago, in the days when some people seriously held that no one over 30 should be trusted, Mick Jagger indicated that he could not quite see himself doing the pop star thing beyond that age. A few years later, when his career had been well-established and with the wisdom brought by maturity and pragmatism, Jagger used the example of bluesmen who carry on making music into their sixties and said he would want to have that kind of career. And so it became true. The Biggest Rock and Roll Band in the world can keep on rocking well beyond normal retiring age for most workers and still retain some kind of hip cool.

Of course, rock and roll is so young that nobody yet knows how long anyone can keep on rocking. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and the like had careers that stretched for 40 years or more; Elvis Presley's career got cut short but he would have been going today if he had stayed alive. It is al just show business and if the Rolling Stones could keep their brand fresh and alive through 5 decades, more power to them.

It is weird to see the wrinklies in their satin and tat jumping around on stage like very much younger men. Jagger has the body of a young dancer, not too much different to what he looked like back in the Sixties or Seventies, but the face tells a different story. Maybe he made a pact with the devil: his body will stay trim but his face deteriorates. I bet Mick Jagger uses more make up now than he did in the Seventies gender bender era. Keith Richards is also kind of thin, except for a bit of a paunch and has really freaky hear – bad hair day everyday – and his face could really use some Botox to flesh out the wrinkles. Keith was never too pretty but now resembles a bit of a mummy. Ron Wood is just thin; maybe he has an eating disorder or an extremely overactive thyroid gland. Charlie Watts has not changed much over the past twenty years. He went grey early and developed a major bald spot on the back of his head. This is pretty still the situation. Fortunately for Charlie he looked old when he was 30.

For all that, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie still rock out solidly and when they fire on all cylinders it is a thrilling ride. Close your eyes and you could be at any gig the band has played since the Seventies. The only difference would be that the sound is probably much better today than it ever was back in the day.

There are three cameo appearances, Jack White on Loving Cup, Buddy Guy on Champagne & Reefer and Christina Aguilera on Live With Me. God knows why. None of them bring much to the party and Aguilera emotes far too muck all over what is a moderately sinister tune from the Sixties heyday. She would have done much better as backing vocalist on Gimme Shelter, one of the all time great Stones tunes that did not make it to the set list. Apparently this is the first Scorcese movie that does not feature Gimme Shelter.

There aren't any real highlights among the tunes. All of them are well played and well sung, without any interesting creative spark to make them fresh or different. The Stones, and their backing musicians, are professionals who have been doing this thing and playing these songs from a very long time and they deliver a professional product that cannot be faulted for attention to detail and the overall customer satisfaction in terms of songs played and the quality of the presentation should be high. It is a big show, with big sound and big tunes that have been part of our musical history and cultural education for so long they might as well be pre-historic. For most of us the Rolling Stones have always been there, astride the world like a rock and roll colossus and it is sad to think that the evidence of Shine A Light will mostly serve to prove only that you can rock until you are almost dead, but that getting better at it does not mean you are more vital or interesting, except as a bit of a curiosity.

I walked out of the theatre really stoked. This was as close to a live Stones concert as I would ever come, but when I got home I sought Hot Rocks 1 and 2 and Exile On Main Street, and immersed myself in Stones music in the versions that originally won me over and meant something to me. These are the versions I will listen to over and over because they are performed by the young men who turned rebellion into money and made good, solid, satisfying rock along the way, most of them classics that will forever define a particular zeitgeist and also define what rock should be in its rawest primal form. Of course I am biased in my opinion. I like the blues and I like what the Stones have done with infusing their rock with blues without adulterating the one or stultifying the other and for my money, you cannot really make good rock music if you do not fuse the two. This opinion may also make me sound like a relic from a bygone era who has no idea of what informs current rock and who no longer has any clue, and that is alright. I am no longer a teenager and I do not have to like or understand the stuff teenagers listen to nowadays.

The thing is: how many of today's bands will still be with us in 40 years time, going as strong as ever? Maybe the paradigm has changed and maybe rock is no longer so brand strong that anything has to last beyond the initial success and maybe the Internet will kill rock as we know it, but I know this: there has never been anybody like the Rolling Stones and there never will be again. They made records in the days when rock music was really important because it was still in its infancy and rebellion seemed real. Now it is all either corporate or independent and Internet fuelled and making money is the chief objective.

Very little matters in music anymore. There is too much of it, too many genres, too many artists, too many merely technically excellent albums.

One should ask this rhetorical question: of today's big bands or artists, how many will be the subject of a Martin Scorcese movie? Okay, I know he is of a certain age and will prefer acts from his youth, but if there is major movie maker who embraces the idea of making a documentary about a big act, which of today's big guns will be chosen? Are there even big guns amongst us anymore?

The Rolling Stones have become older and have carried on for far longer than they or anybody else would have imagined but for all that their light shines strongly and brightly and still illuminates our lives far better than any alternative currently available.