Saturday, December 31, 2016

About this year: Farage sings Bowie

As part of the all-encompassing need to package up time into arbitrary chunks and assign specific characteristics to them (and yes, do read my book about the Noughties, you know you want to), 2016 has been identified in most of the valedictory reviews as a year of a) seismic political shocks; and b) dead celebrities. Of course, this is partly a matter of perspective; if you spent most of the 12 months cowering from barrel bombs in Aleppo, it’s possible that the demise of David Gest may have left you less than moved.

But even in more peaceful parts of the world, I wonder whether this neat labelling of the year is that accurate. For many people, of course, the results of the Brexit referendum and the US election weren’t at all shocking; they came either as a pleasant surprise or simply as a natural fulfillment of all that is right and good in the world; and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the people who were happy enough with those developments were also those who weren’t too upset when the news came in that David Bowie or Prince or Carrie Fisher wouldn’t be seeing 2017. I did get into a minor online skirmish with one gentlemen who couldn’t understand why so much more attention was being paid to the death of a “poofter” such as George Michael than to a salt-of-the-earth denim-clad rocker like Rick Parfitt of Status Quo, who had left us the day before.

Now, no disrespect to the late Mr Parfitt, who plied his trade with commitment, energy and self-deprecating humour for nearly 50 years, but I think the common thread that unites many of the big-name, blue-chip deaths of the year (Bowie, Prince, Fisher, Michael, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, even poor old Pete Burns) is that in their lives and their work they interrogated and challenged fundamental, preconceived notions about gender, race, sexuality and more. Parfitt, bless him, didn’t. And – I’m just running on instinct here, with no empirical data to hand, but bear with me – the people who supported Trump and Farage tended to be the same people who wished those notions had gone happily unchallenged, who yearn for a time and a place when America is great again and the Black and White Minstrels are still on the telly (it’s just a bit of harmless fun) and there’s honey still for tea. For them, 2016 was about political triumph and vindication, with maybe a bit of sadness that Rick Parfitt died.

It’s a small matter in the greater scheme of things, but I’ve got a morbid yearning for both Trump and Farage to show up on Desert Island Discs, so we can find out what really pushes their cultural and emotional buttons. I’m guessing neither of them would pick a Bowie track – unless Farage is prepared to admit that his go-to karaoke piece is ‘The Laughing Gnome’.

PS: While we’re on the subject – who’s going to play at the inauguration?

PPS: Ah, question answered. Thanks to David Jacobson.

Monday, December 12, 2016

About The Electrical Storm

The Electrical Storm is less an autobiography, more a series of fragments, episodes in apparently random order that together attempt (and probably fail but that’s part of the joke, I guess) to illuminate the life and work of Jerry Thackray (alias The Legend! and/or Everett True). The key problem (and the reason we need the book) is that, as the multiple pseudonyms suggest, Mr True is not easy to place in a box. He’s a journalist, an editor, an academic and also a musician, creator of the first and worst-selling single ever released on Creation Records. But he prefers more grandiloquent, quixotic labels:
I am not one of those Rolling Stone guys who rate their own importance. I am not an NME head. I am not a hack with delusions of literary grandeur. I am not a fucking music journalist. I am Everett True. Read my CV, it tells you right here – “Insurrectionary, tastemaker, loser”.
The narrative bounces back and forth in time and space between Brisbane and Brighton, Seattle and London, Chicago and his Essex birthplace. He drinks a lot, dances a lot, fights a bit and seems to spend a great deal of time not quite having sex. He invents grunge, but he’s talking about the Happy Mondays at the time. He watches the Rolling Stones with Sheryl Crow and wets himself. Tales that would have been extended to a whole book by a more earnest hack (eg getting teargassed in Siberia) are dismissed in a few lines. It probably helps to know at least a little about the contexts in which he works, the identities of Calvin and Karen and the woman whose husband plays the guitar left-handed, but it’s not essential. You just get pulled along for the ride.
Ultimately, it’s all about identity. Sometimes True appears to get bored and hands over control to one of his friends, to tell a tale of how they met. Sometimes he just seems baffled, a new Brian hailed as a pop Messiah:
Within 20 seconds, there are thousands upon thousands of people chanting my name. “Everett True. Everett True.” What do they want from me? “Everett True. Everett True.” Why do they call my name? I cannot mend anything.
And occasionally you have to wonder how much is a drunken dream, as he mentions a detail then immediately tells you it’s a false memory. But throughout he’s at least trying to be honest, as counterintuitive as that may seem in a post-truth society. His vulnerability is real and raw. Dislike me or find me obnoxious, please don’t forget me,” he begs during an interview — one in which he’s meant to be the journalist, not the subject. And later (or is it earlier?):
I’m on the plane and Seattle is twinkling and I want to stay circling the city forever… I’m wondering if anyone’s ever going to want to listen to my stories again.
What really makes The Electrical Storm work is not the stories themselves; it’s the tension between True’s professional selves. Ultimately he’s a fan — the two most telling tales are about how he got into a fight with another journalist over who loved Dexys Midnight Runners more; and time he danced so energetically at a Nick Cave gig that the great man hit him with his mic stand and True, not Cave, ended up occupying half the subsequent review.
Like the man, like his work, it’s not an entirely smooth ride. But The Electrical Storm is well worth the blackouts and bruises.