Monday, June 26, 2023

About Elton John

I’ve long been a fan of Brian Wilson and I’ve been fortunate to see him in concert three times. The first was at one of his triumphant Pet Sounds concerts in London in 2002 and it was probably the greatest musical event I’ve ever attended. The second was in Singapore, when he temporarily reunited with the Beach Boys for their 50th anniversary tour and although it was more of a case study in the dynamics of a dysfunctional family than a gig per se, it was still fun. The most recent was back in London a few years ago; he could no longer hit the high notes, and was having trouble with some of the medium range ones, and barely played the piano that seemed to serve more as a barrier to protect him from the audience than any kind of musical instrument. But the accompanying musicians filled in the gaps very well and the fans seemed to come to a consensus that what were really doing was to say thank you to this damaged genius, for the times when he could do it, and did. I probably won’t see him again if another opportunity arises, but I’m glad I did.

I was reminded of that most recent concert when I watched TV coverage of Elton John’s performance at Glastonbury last night, supposedly his last ever gig in the UK. Elton’s career trajectory has been similar to Brian’s in some respects, with mental troubles and substance abuse threatening to derail things at several junctures. But he too pulled through, and seems to be in better shape than his American counterpart, at all times aware of where he is and what he’s doing, acknowledging and appreciating the love of the crowd. And Elton's hands are definitely hammering away at those keys, unlike Brian’s, which hover a few inches above, never daring to connect.

There’s one problem, though. Elton can’t sing any more. It’s not a matter of not being able to sing in key any more, as with Brian; it’s that his diction is shot to pieces. He mumbles, he slurs, and we hadn’t heard Bernie Taupin’s lyrics a hundred, a thousand times before, we wouldn’t know what the hell he was on about. This is something that was identified during lockdown when he gave us his now-notorious Pub Singer rendition of ‘I’m Still Standing’ and many brushed off his inadequacy with the explanation that he was out of practice, that once the pandemic was over and he started to tour again, all would be well. Apparently not. It’s not clear what’s gone wrong (Something neurological? Cosmetic surgery? New teeth?) but it sounded bloody horrible.

And does that matter? Not really, certainly not to the devotees who bade him farewell at Glastonbury and from their living rooms. Just like Brian’s fans in Hammersmith, they were gathered to remember the good old days, and above all to say thank you.

But I’m baffled by the professional, paid critics (here’s one; here’s another; and there’s more) who’ve been telling us, quite rightly, that this was  an emotionally charged, joyous gathering of faithful, a celebration of a long and glorious career, without acknowledging that, as a musical performance, it was all a bit rubbish, frankly.

PS: Vaguely related, an argument that criticism doesn’t require any particular knowledge or contextual understanding. Which makes it just reaction, surely?

Thursday, June 22, 2023

About Tár

Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books on the generational divide exposed by Todd Fields’s film Tár (which I really ought to have watched by now):

We of Tár’s generation can be quick to lambaste those we call (behind their backs) “the youngs,” but speaking for myself, I’m the one severely triggered by statements like “Chaucer is misogynistic” or “Virginia Woolf was a racist.” Not because I can’t see that both statements are partially true, but because I am of that generation whose only real shibboleth was: “Is it interesting?” Into which broad category both evils and flaws could easily be fit, not because you agreed with them personally but because they had the potential to be analyzed, just like anything else. Whereas if you grew up online, the negative attributes of individual humans are immediately disqualifying. The very phrase ad hominem has been rendered obsolete, almost incomprehensible. An argument that is directed against a person, rather than the position they are maintaining? Online a person is the position they’re maintaining and vice versa. Opinions are identities and identities are opinions. Unfollow!

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

About English

You’re wading into murky waters these days if you call someone out for misusing the English language but I think it’s fair enough to hold the self-appointed gatekeepers, the teachers and the editors, to a higher standard.

On the other hand... I just heard a radio play in which a teacher referred twice to Derek Bentley being hung (rather than hanged) and I thought, “wouldn’t a teacher get that right?” and then I thought, no probably not. And while the play was still running I saw this tweet
and realised that, in more than 30 years as an editor, the only time I’ve ever discussed the subjunctive voice was with people who didn’t have English as a native language.

And the only question remaining is, if the gatekeepers have stopped keeping the gate, what exactly are they for?

Friday, June 09, 2023

About Soft Cell

A couple of nights ago, I went to see 80s synth-pop pioneers Soft Cell in the slightly incongruous  surroundings of Hampton Court Palace. As the show was about to start, a hunched, elderly-looking gentleman was pushed in his wheelchair into place behind a keyboard; the realisation that this was Dave Ball, the quieter half of the duo but always present in the posters and Smash Hits interviews, cast a melancholy tone across the crowd, most of whom appeared to be of a similar age.

It turns out that Ball’s health has not permitted him to take place in many of the band’s shows in recent weeks and some have argued that they’d paid to see the band, all two of them, not just Marc Almond plus session musicians. At first I queried whether these complaints held water. Ball’s contribution to the act has always been as a tunesmith and studio tinkerer; live, he just tended to stand there, stabbing one-or-two-fingered at the synth, staring impassively ahead. And all the music is programmed anyway so his presence or absence really didn’t matter much, compared to the fizzing, flesh-and-blood impishness of Almond. (Incidentally, Marc is an unusual example of someone whose voice has actually improved in technical terms since his heyday.)

But this isn’t really about what the music sounds like, is it? It’s about nostalgia, homage, touching base with your own teenage self, about seeing the posters and interviews and videos come to life. I had a similar epiphany the last time I saw Brian Wilson; he spent most of the time sitting behind his piano, not playing, occasionally singing but letting his bandmates hit the high notes he can these days only dream of. We were there to be there with him, and that’s all.

What the disgruntled Soft Cell fans are after is the same sense of belonging, once expressed by writing the band’s name on your geography exercise book and as such the band, Soft Cell, not just Marc, just needs to turn up, to be present. And maybe sign one of those posters.

Monday, June 05, 2023

Not about Warhol

“In the future, everyone will be Nadine Dorries for 15 minutes.”

Saturday, June 03, 2023

About dead people

Nobody reads this blog any more, so there’s little point in writing this. That said, there would seem to be little point in Blogger telling me that several of my posts have been put behind a warning (akin to those apocryphal ruffles that Victorians supposedly used to cover the shame of piano legs) but this is indeed what they’ve done. 

The problem is, beyond a bland ticking-off that they “contain sensitive content” and may not “adhere to Blogger’s community guidelines” there’s no indication as to what may have given the Blog Gods a fit of the moral vapours. Unless, of course, I realise that a post asking why Lisa Jardine privileges the reading tastes of women over men, and one pondering the extent to which Jade Goody’s stupidity is real are linked by one crucial element: since the posts were written, both Professor Jardine and Ms Goody have died. All that I can infer is that we are no longer permitted to speak ill of the dead* and I’m just waiting for Blogger’s AI to stumble over my Jimmy Savile post.

Incidentally, they also found fault in a third post, in which the only potential offence I can deduce is the contention that Haruki Murakami’s first book isn’t terribly good. And since pretty much the only person who gets offended by that sort of thing any more is, uh, me, I’m not sure what the problem is.

*Of course, I have to bring up Bette Davis’s line: “You should never say bad things about the dead, only good. Joan Crawford is dead? Good.”