Saturday, January 16, 2016

About Bowie

Talking heads from David Cameron upwards have had their say on David Bowie and why he was important and what he really meant. The guy’s barely been (secretly) cremated and already a backlash has started, the main criticism being that this is an orgy of irrational grief unprecedented since the whole Diana thing; maybe even more over the top since this mourning is amplified by social media. (I learned of Diana's death from the TV news; I learned of Bowie’s from the Fantasy Death League Facebook group.)

So, leaving aside the comprehensible grief of his family and close friends, are we permitted to mourn? And if so, why are we doing so with such intensity?

First, I think, because it was a shock. This may seem a little strange, because Bowie was 69; not exactly a ripe old age these days, but a point in life where banal infirmities such as cancer are liable to become part of the background music at least. It’s not as if he was a member of the 27 club, although few would have been surprised had he joined that unhappy institution; when Bowie actually was 27, the period when he appeared in the documentary Cracked Actor, he claimed to exist on a diet of red peppers, milk and cocaine. 

But it wasn’t so much the shock that he had died; it was the realisation that he even *could* die. More than any other performer — maybe only Michael Jackson came close — he had become inextricably linked with his evolving, reincarnating personas, so we rather lost sight of the flesh and blood underneath. Yes, in theory, we knew that he’d spent the past 20 or so years in domestic bliss with his gorgeous wife and beloved daughter, the sort of thing to which mere mortals aspire — but at the same time he was still Ziggy and the Duke and Screaming Lord Byron and they can never die. How can you kill something that was never conventionally alive?

That collective delusion apart, why was he important, why was he mourned? Well, there’s the music of course and, in purely artistic terms, he wrote and performed some great pop. I could never claim to have been a devote Bowiephile in the way that some of my friends were; I owned maybe half a dozen albums in various forms; saw him in concert just the once. But his own music is just the start of it; it’s his influence on huge swathes of what came after — glam, punk, indie, new romantic, synth pop, industrial, event elements of soul, funk and dance — is incalculable. For the past few days I’ve been surrounded by people who were perhaps too young to have fully understood what Bowie meant, some even who’d never heard of him. I’ve been trying to construct for them a musical universe in which Bowie never existed, a sort of It’s A Wonderful Life in which Jimmy Stewart has screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo — and it’s a horribly bland place, I can tell you.

But it’s not just the music, is it? What Bowie really offered was a sense of identity and belonging for those of us who didn’t really belong. The square pegs, the left-handers, the kids who got picked last for the football team. Inevitably there have been countless references to a specific TV performance of Starman in July 1972, a moment that appears to have transformed the lives of pretty much everyone who saw it, each believing that when he sang “I had to phone someone so I picked on you” it was a personal invitation to attend some kind of Bacchanalian tea party. I missed that moment but there were plenty more through the years, a series of glorious happenings that never seemed contrived, second-guessing the zeitgeist while selling records almost as an afterthought. The sounds and the costumes and the characters changed but what remained consistent was his otherness, out of time, out of place, at once cool and awkward, Hamlet and Meursault and Josef K, how we wanted to be and how we were in one package. As we put on our red shoes and immediately fell wanking to the floor, he was a sort of Platonic ideal of how to be. And now that he’s dead — and even though his death was enigmatic and surprising and delivered with extraordinary timing, he’s dead — we realise that he was mere meat and bones and earwax like the rest of us.

But he did it so well. And those of us 40- and 50-somethings who stumbled through our dreary existences for the past week, sharing memories and tears and fuzzy YouTube clips of strange TV appearances in 1976, maybe what we’re really grieving for is the fact that however often we paint on that Aladdin Sane flash, we are not and never will be Bowie. 

Sunday, November 08, 2015

A birthday, of sorts

This blog shuffled into life 10 years ago today. The first post was inevitably a tad meta, but it also had room for Murakami, pencils and vodka. In fact, I wonder whether I should have called it Pencils and Vodka. 

I had the vague notion that the blog would be a record of what I was reading and watching and listening to, but it quickly took a detour. Still, just for old time’s sake...
I’ve just worked out how old I’ll be if this lasts another 10 years and I want to hide under the table...

Anyway, to mark the occasion in traditional style, here’s a tastefully saucy picture of Helen Mirren:

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

About Kenny G

The saxophonist Kenny G is simply horrid, from his banal, sugary smooooth jazz noodling to his nasty hair (and for a more cogent analysis of his musical, aesthetic and moral sins, do read this coruscating attack by Pat Metheny). But when I was alerted to the fact that he’s going to make an attempt on the world record for holding a single note (on a plane, for charity) I couldn’t help thinking that if some more credible musician were doing exactly the same thing, we’d be hailing it as a magnificent piece of performance art and it would probably end up being entered for the Turner Prize.

That said, his hair’s still ghastly.

Does this mean I’m blogging again?

Monday, September 28, 2015

About cover versions

There’s been lots of chin-stroking happening about Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift’s album 1989 — see this article for a quick taster. Boiled down, the mood is that while Adams intended his versions to be a salute to Swift’s songwriting ability, some critics don’t take it that way. Why does a cheery female pop artist need the validation of a glum bloke with a guitar before she’s taken seriously? (At a tangent, this is similar to the argument that Jeremy Corbyn’s defenders offered when he gave all the top Shadow Cabinet jobs to men — the assumption that the Foreign Office is somehow more prestigious than Education is in itself gendered. Well, hmmm. 

The arguments do rather support my thesis that pop music is (maybe I mean should be) always less about music than it is about something else (gender, race, sexuality, teenage rebellion, whatever) because what’s at stake here is credibility. Earlier this month I was in Singapore (which is in itself a glossy cover version of a real city) and saw a performance by Postmodern Jukebox, an American ensemble that reworks modern pop tunes in a dizzying array of earlier styles. As the name suggests, there’s a mood of droll irony going on here, but the performers also appear to take a genuine joy in what they can do with the material — they’re working with it, not against it. 

So is that OK? I’m kind of guessing that Ms Swift, who appears to be a pretty level-headed woman, doesn’t really give a toss as long as she gets paid. Although some people seem to believe I think too much about these things...

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Banksy and Warney

I’m afraid I haven’t yet made the pilgrimage to Weston-super-Mare, the site of Banksy’s theme-park-with-a-difference, Dismaland. It sounds like an interesting and different experience but from the coverage so far it looks as if he’s borrowed rather a lot of ideas from conceptual provocateurs such as Jeff Koons (zzzzzz) and the Chapman Brothers (love them). To be fair, when I raised this yesterday, several of his defenders pointed out that Banksy has never pretended to be original.

What he does offer is the ability to grab attention in mainstream media where other contemporary artists can’t get a look-in (Hirst and Emin excepted, possibly). And of course the best way to do this is with bourgeois-bating outrage, with which Dismaland is liberally endowed, whether it’s a kitschy re-staging of the Diana crash or Punch and Judy with the male lead recast as Jimmy Savile.

Bad taste? Possibly. But Banksy wasn’t the only deployer of bad taste this week. There was also Project Harpoon, the self-defined “collaborative art project” that refashions images of larger women (without their consent) into proportions that are more acceptable to its creators. And then of course there’s the painting that spin-bowling legend Shane Warne has commissioned for his Melbourne home; featuring a barely clad Angelina Jolie among the throng. It’s horrific, obviously — but if it showed up in Dismaland, might we see it differently?

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Films I recently watched on a plane

When I started this blog, at a time when most of you were still in nappies, the idea was that I’d use it to write about what I was reading and watching and listening to. After a while, though, I got to the stage when I didn’t have time to write so much; but later still, I realised I wasn’t even making the time to read or watch or listen, so there’d be bugger all to write about anyway.

The only exception comes when I fly, which is the time I set aside to catch up on the films I really ought to have seen over the past few months; and since I’ve been flying more than normal lately, I’ve managed to catch a few films. But I still don’t have much time to write, so please regard these as rough notes rather than full-on reviews. You know, as if you care.

Pride (Matthew Warchus). Similar to Bend it Like Beckham (but with gay people and the miner’s strike instead of feminism, Asian parents and football), this is a movie with its heart in the right place and a script that’s so grindingly banal and obvious it could almost make you vote Tory. It’s not a spoiler alert to reveal that Bill Nighy’s character turns out at the end to be gay, because if you don’t guess that within 30 seconds you’re probably a bit dim.

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg) Mulholland Dr meets Magnolia, with passing references to The Shining and The Sixth Sense. Cronenberg takes the adage that you shouldn’t work with children and animals to the logical conclusion by trying to kill off all the children and animals. And Julianne Moore farts. I liked it. (By the way, KLM doesn’t censor its on-board entertainment, which in this case means there was a penis. I’m not sure the bloke in the seat next to me was ready for that.) 

Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn). Somebody you don’t expect to die, dies. And somebody you don’t expect to be a baddy turns out to be a baddy. The suits are nice, though, and the extreme violence is quite amusing, especially the exploding heads at the end.

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh). All competently and sensitively done, but Eddie Redmayne’s turn as Stephen Hawking is the sort of barefaced, cynical, hey-look-at-my-disabled-face Oscar bait I thought we’d thrown out 20 years ago. And I still don’t really understand what a black hole is.

Birdman (Alexander González Iñárritu). Maybe I shouldn’t have been so sneery about Oscar bait, because this actually won the Best Picture gong and it’s utterly brilliant, with Michael Keaton  – as an actor famous for playing a superhero, attempting to resurrect his career – hovering on the crowded intersection between fantasy, madness, performance and the supernatural. But he doesn’t do a disabled face so he didn’t get a prize for himself. The ending actually left me gasping, which can be kind of embarrassing on a plane. Fortunately, this was a different flight, so the bloke who didn’t like the penis in Maps to the Stars wasn’t around to object.

PS: Oh, and in case you missed it, I wrote another thing about food in Bangkok.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

About semi-colons

You may have heard by now about the semi-colon campaign, which encourages people to get a tattoo of the punctuation mark in order to... well, I’m not sure really. It’s something to do with mental health  problems and/or addictions, and having a tattoo indicates that you’ve lived and/or overcome with these issues or you know someone who has or that you want to acknowledge that they exist. And apparently it’s a faith-based campaign, but that doesn’t mean that you have to have faith in anyone or anything. All of which seems to be so inclusive as to be near-meaningless, but at the same time, only a heartless shit could object to it. It’s like a permanent (or, in fact, semi-permanent, because that’s OK too, we’re told) version of the equal marriage stripes I was musing about a few days ago.

And I’m wary of it for much the same reason, annoyed by the notion that if I don’t get a tattoo I’m somehow dismissive or the troubles that some people live with, or that I’m holding myself up as a model of emotional equilibrium who’s never had a dark moment. (Yeah, right.) The funny thing is that I’d been pondering the idea of getting a tattoo, mainly because I’m 47. (Does a mid-life crisis count as a mental health issue within the terms of the semi-colon project? Discuss.) And I was also thinking that if I were to get inked, I might get a punctuation mark. But I would have gone for a question mark — and now I can’t because that might now be interpreted as some sort of sardonic slight against the good intentions of the semi-colon people. Wars have been waged over less.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

About not having cancer

So there was a lump. There’s always a lump first, isn’t there, when people blog about it? It was a small, slightly pointed lump on my forehead and I would have let it stay there, but then it started to hurt when anything brushed against it and then it started to bleed and I was sure it wasn’t anything particularly serious but you know, just to be sure, I went to the doctor. And the doctor said that it was almost totally certainly a wart (a filiform wart, in case you’re interested, so there’s a new word) and she could take it off there and then but afterwards, you know, just to be sure, she could send it to the lab, but only if I wanted. And I said, yeah, you know, just to be sure. So that’s what she did, took it off, sent it to the lab, just to be sure. And of course, I didn’t really think it was anything particularly serious and didn’t think very much about it at all. Except that I just received the e-mail from the lab telling me it was definitely a filiform wart and nothing else and so everything’s OK and it’s only then that I notice that nobody’s actually said the word “cancer” and suddenly it feels as if I’ve been holding my breath for the past few days without realising I was doing it.