Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Charles Shaar Murray

In the mid-Seventies Charles Shaar Murray (or CSM as I soon came to know him) wrote the first article I ever read about Dr Feelgood, published in Hit Parader magazine.

Today I watched a YouTube clip from 2009, of CSM and his band Crosstown Lightnin' performing Hideaway, the Freddie King number also made famous by Cream. CSM plays a white Fender Stratocaster and throws a bunch of conventional lead guitarist shapes.

Although he plays a different guitar and has a different stage personality, I was struck by the striking similarity between the way CSM looks today and how Wilko Johnson, erstwhile guitarist for Dr Feelgood looks today. They could well be brothers in more ways than just in the blues.

Crosstown Lightnin' sounds like a lot or competent blues bands and there is nothing in particular about the performance on the video to suggest that we are dealing with a whole new deal in blues. Evidently CSM is having fun, he can play the guitar well and I would imagine I would have a good night out at any venue they play.

I must make a confession and say that Charles Shaar Murray was the first rock writer I really rated both for his erudition in matters of which I knew little at the time, and for his hip, funny style. In 1977 when I started buying the NME I was more or less clueless about rock music in its broad spectrum although I had started on my journey to learn as much about it as I could. The thing was that the books I had dealt with older music, the glam rock of the early Seventies was the most recent music they dealt with and by the dawning of the age of punk such stuff was well and truly old fashioned. The NME provided me with a window into what was happening in the UK at the time, albeit always about 6 months behind the times, and of its many good writers CSM was the guy who spoke loudest to me.

He liked the blues, and I was just starting on my journey into the blues as well, yet he obviously had all the right credentials and moves to fit right into contemporary rock with a somewhat more jaundiced eye than some of the young guns at the NME who either did not know much about anything before punk or chose to pretend that none of it mattered.

It was only when I bought Shots From The Hip that I read CSM's earlier pieces and fully realised how wide his experience in rock journalism had been, and I must also say that the self consciously hip style and gonzo affectations of many of the items from the pre-punk era seemed a trifle pretentious and precious and grated slightly on my nerves, but on the whole it was a good way of learning how a style develops and how a rock writer can change his viewpoint over time and yet remain true to his original vision.

I liked CSM's style in the weekly NME because he was funny, cool, and wrote in clear, precise English and said what he meant and meant what he said, unlike, say Ian Penman who specialised in clear as mud bullshit. Of course I shared many of CSM's opinions and he became a guide. If he liked something, I would like it too and if I did not know anything about the artist, his recommendation was a motivation for seeking out a record.

An NME with plenty CSM in it was a delight; an NME with no CSM in it, was a bit of a dud.

Over the years I've bought Shots From The Hip, the collection of articles for various publications, Crosstown Traffic, the critical study of the music of Jimi Hendrix (the very serious style of this book made it seem like a doctoral thesis, very unlike the loose style CSM usually employed) and Boogieman, the John Lee Hooker biography, where the CSM of old made a reappearance, in the style as well as in the narrative. I wish there was more, either anther collection or maybe just another book. Perhaps he is busy researching or writing something new, and playing blues guitar in his spare time.

Maybe he is doing a Tom Wolfe and is working on his debut novel at this late stage of his writing career which had been focused on journalism. Whatever it is, I look forward to it. This man is a major talent.

Nowadays CSM is gray and wears his hair very short, possibly to camouflage the bald spot. Back in the day he had a mop of curls and liked wearing a dark suit with red Converse sneakers. When I first read of this sartorial style, I thought the guy was unspeakably hip. Not only could he write like a god but he fitted right in with his subjects. I wanted to emulate him and in my home town there was not much call for a pudgy, spotty faced, clueless pseudo punk and I was in any event way too scared of public ridicule to adopt a complete punk attitude and style. In my heart, though, I wore a black suit and red sneakers, and cultivated irony and wit as my defence against a cruel world.

Anyhow, my view of CSM made me believe that being a rock critic or maybe just music journalist, would be one of the best careers ever. In my fantasy life anyhow, as I did not pursue that route but stuck to my law studies instead.

I did not write about music at all until 1996, after I'd heard of the death of local guitarist Nico Burger, and was motivated to write about my interaction with Burger and the music scene in Stellenbosch and Cape Town from the mid-Eighties to the early Nineties. After that I wrote a steady number of pieces about various acts I liked or did not like and started publishing them on my various blogs. So, rock journalist I am not and will never be. CSM may not even write much about music anymore as he is now elevated into the rarefied atmosphere of the famous who can probably elect what they want to write about and no longer has any deadline issues to deal with.

Greil Marcus is another of my top favourite rock writers but he is almost the anti-CSM in that I do not believe that Marcus sees anything humorous in rock and his writing style is far too scholarly and literary and I believe that he overworks the subject matter a lot of the time. It is difficult to understand why anyone could take any aspect of rock music that seriously. Maybe Greil Marcus never practised his craft as music journalist, much less in the cauldron of the competition between British music weeklies in the heydays of the Seventies and spent little time around working, big name rock acts and never really saw the ridiculous side of it in action. CSM met a number of the big names and was not to beholden to mock the pretentious and stupid. He knew that rock stars were not infallible or even intelligently articulates because he saw them face to face and was not going to suffer fools simply because he or she may be earning millions in the popular music sphere.

Greil Marcus may continue to be regarded as some heavyweight observer and critic of popular culture and CSM may become a footnote as just another Brit who got a bit lucky in his career but never quite transcended is roots in the populist rock weeklies, but for my money I would almost rather have a collection of CSM's product than that of Marcus. When I regularly bought the NME I also kept scrapbooks of cuttings from it: reviews, articles, photographs. Those scrapbooks contained copious amounts of writing by CSM, from articles to reviews to Smart Arse Oneliner replies to letters addressed to NME, and covered pretty much everything he got published in the NME between 1977 and 1981 and of course I am talking about many more items than collected in Shots From The Hip. Some years ago, when I amalgated my household with my girlfriend's, I threw away a lot of stuff, including those scrapbooks, some 40 in all, and every now and then I feel a pang of regret. It would still be nice to look back at rock music history on the go as presented by NME and to have a comprehensive collection of CSM's opinions on the passing scene as he observed at the time.

One of the earliest CSM pieces I kept, was a profile of Muddy Waters, then in the twilight of his life and career, though the career had been resuscitated under the auspices of Blue Sky Records and Johnny Winter. For some reason I did not simply cut out the article, perhaps because it ran over a couple of pages and there may have been something else of value on the reverse of the Waters article. So, in order to keep the article (and the fact that it was about a legendary bluesman weighed very much in favour of the piece) I laboriously typed a copy of the article. The typing took much longer than I had anticipated as I used only 2 fingers to type and it turned out that what seemed a relatively concise article in printed form, took up more paper in A4 size than I would have thought possible. Apart from anything else it gave me a new insight in the amount of effort required to produce such a piece.

The NME writers were fond of referring to themselves, perhaps not completely sardonically ironic, as hacks but it is difficult to believe that a hack would have been able to turn out high class prose and entertainment almost each and every time he put his fingers on the keyboard of a typewriter. CSM has talent in spades, has an enquiring mind and sharp wit and was not, and probably is not, afraid to make use of these tools to make his mark and to say his say. Whether he is a genius as a guitarist, is difficult to say from the evidence of one video clip but I must say that I always found it slightly weird that the man would be a blues aficionado, to the extent of playing in a R & B band, amidst the New Wave acolytes of the NME who would have considered the blues as so obsolescent that it would make boring old farts seem fresh, hip and happening. This was one reason why I loved the concept of CSM; he was not afraid to be different amongst the young Turks and to be tolerant of their brutish Philistinism and almost reactionary antipathy towards anything that did not jibe with the new orthodoxy. CSM was not that old but he must have been regarded as fucking ancient by the newbies who seemed not only to know little of rock's history but did not care.

CSM knew that it was, all jokes apart, a big tapestry furl of rich colour and images, that a lot of it would be repeated in different shapes and forms over the future years and that even a young Turk will grow old and be superseded by even younger and more radical Turks. In rock music writing you are only as good as your last published piece, and CSM was good in every one and excellent in most.




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