Saturday, 19 July 2008

Ladies Love Cool Cohen

Myself and herself went along to the Leonard Cohen love in this week on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. Got last minute tickets on a slightly tipsy whim when I was alerted to a last minute allocation going on sale the week before the gig. Pals and family had gone to the Dublin and Manchester shows. By the time I realised the only tickets available were expensive "hospitality" tickets I was completely committed to seeing him. So, a pile of money and seven days later we found ourselves guzzling free champagne (well, insfoar as it came free with a £75 ticket!) in a covered pod at the back of the open air auditorium.

My memories of Cohen permeate most phases in my life. My father loved his records and I remember him being played and his songs sung when my folks' parents stayed late drinking wine. I remember "Famous Blue Raincoat" as played by the busker opposite the O'Connell Mall soundtracking tearful ruminations after a drunken teenage drama on the night of my 18th birthday. The rain pouring down and my tearstained frustration at a thoughtless insensitive remark that ruined my own evenings entertainment.

My grandmother, in the later stages of her alzheimers, paranoid we were poisoning her, slipping crushed up anti-anxiety meds into her tea still remembered she hated Leonard's "Mrrrhm, mrrrhm, mrrrhm" droning down from my fathers teenage bedroom.

Cohen's music means things to people. It clearly meant a lot to the lady sat beside me. She stood up and shouted "YOU, JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP" to a gent three rows back who was chatting softly to his mate through the first song. Scary stuff! Clearly she understood Leonard better than everyone else.

The passion that Cohen inspires amongst women of all ages is staggering. The overwhelming impression of carnal quasi-religious fervour was epitomised as a woman dressed in white walked up the aisles in front of the stage like a bride to get a snap of our hero sauntering his way through "That's no way to say goodbye".

The strange sexual undertone was heightened for me by the two women behind me whispering every line of "I'm Your Man" into my ear creating a kind of sexy invisible Greek Chorus alongside Cohen's beautiful baritone. The intensity of the "hear a pin drop" reaction to his reading of "One Thousand Kisses Deep" was a real highlight with a palpable waft of lust in the air.

His band were fantastic if you're into the kind of glistening, virtuosic Adult Oriented Lobby Jazz de rigeur for late period 60's icons. Being a snooty pretendy-avant-gardian git I'd prefer to have had Leonard playing with acoustic backing and treating us to doomy readings of Blake and Burns. But that would require a time machine and an audience of about twenty. This was, despite the wrong-headed myth of Cohen as some sort of tortured hermit, entertainment in the broadest sense and the experience was all the better for it. The crowd were there to enjoy themselves and my apprehension that we'd be stuck with inattentive liggers proved completely wrong. A couple from Shetland offered some of their wine to the people around them and apart from the early intensity of the cultist beside me everyone was friendlier and more open than a lot of trendier gatherings.

Despite not playing any of my four favourites (The Partisan, Famous Blue Raincoat, Last Years Man and Chelsea Hotel #2) the two and a half hour show didn't disappoint with Tower of Song, Hallelujah, Suzanne, One Thousand Kisses Deep and the rambunctious closer Closing Time being the dazzling gems in a cave littered with treasure.

Cohen's chops as a poet seems to have inspired some great work. I stumbled across genius Julian Gough material in comments on a Guardian BookBlog about Cohen. This is number IX in a series of X written late at night and made my heart sing.


You get up at five in the morning
And write poems about poetry for an hour and a half.
You are forty and you have no money and your trousers have split and nobody reads poetry.

But your wife is beautiful.
And your daughter is beautiful.
And you’re wearing a great shirt.
In a few hours you will all have coffee together.

You make a note at the top of a new page
“Write to Leonard Cohen and thank him before he dies.”


I have fond memories of Gough's old band Toasted Heretic, particularly "Songs for Swinging Celibates" which my cousin and I used to sing along to. I'm glad I've managed to master my enthusiasm in recent years as I fear my "genius" idea of singing "Galway Bay" at my wedding to my father in law may have contributed to recriminations that probably would have necessitated another fiver in a buskers' guitar case and a request to "Just play "Raincoat" man".

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Freedom of speech baby.

Free for all comments now enabled!
Apologies to the huddled masses without ID's that have been itching to comment on my
staggering insights.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Heaven and Bloody Hell

The return of My Bloody Valentine has provoked all sorts of half-informed lazy myth driven guff over the last few weeks. These can be roughly summarised thus:

1) Kevin Shields is, like, a total genius.
2) It's pretty loud.
3) You get free earplugs! Score!
4) Loveless is the greatest thing since antiseptic
5) Feedback is the purifying visceral voice of God
6) My Bloody Valentine haven't played live in a while
7) There's a 20 minute section at the end called the Holocaust/the Apocalypse, this is very loud.
8) They're not very chatty are they?
9) Kevin & Belinda have, like, totally awesome guitars! Look a Fender Jaguar! Woo!
10) The fans are delighted they've reunited. The critics smile benignly and offer 3 star reviews and vaguely sour comments about no-one looking like they've aged.

After seeing MBV at the Barrowlands I can say that the above is pretty much all I heard anyone in the crowd talking about before and during the gig. I was surprised that there was so little atmosphere, everyone just standing politely around waiting to have their ears blown off (and relentlessly checking whether their earplugs were in properly or asking their neighbour whether they had their earplugs). The show was pretty good, it delivered pretty much on what you imagine My Bloody Valentine Live to be like (unremarkable early 90's indie music played at thunderous volume) with no surprises. Fantastic. Sort of. But still strangely unsatisfying despite doing everything you'd have hoped. I imagine it's like a middle-aged virgin waiting for years for "the one"and realising, after their first ride, they could have been spending the last 20 years having as much fun with different people. You Made Me Realise (that I've wasted the best years of my life waiting for safe, unspectacular congress with a similarly inhibited old codger) if you will.

Too far? Probably. But this is the problem. The fact that MBV are very loud and very mysterious seems to set them apart from some of their shoegazer alumni, although I did have a soft spot for Ride, Lush and Submarine era Whipping Boy. But there's been absolutely zero growth, no progress, no notion that anyone, fans or band alike haved moved on from 1991.
Between the old-fashioned venue, the throwback visuals and the identical setlist to 1991 the doors of the Barrowlands could actually have been a time portal in which we actually were transported back in time. For all the talk about the physicality of the MBV sound but it pales into insignificance when compared to my personal extreme noise benchmarks: Deepchord over the Berghain soundsystem, Jah Tubby's soundsystem at the Bongo Club, Pan Sonic at the Venue and Wolf Eyes at All Tomorrows Parties. I had expectations that all four of these gigs would be incredibly loud but still left surprised, giddy and blown away.

This is ultimately the problem. I don't think I could have been blown away by MBV unless we all boarded the MBV Starship and blasted off into space destroying the planet and all unbelievers with Kevin Shields' Death Ray. Now that would have been surprising. And something that exceeded my expectations. The effect of the MBV sound on the body is captivating and the noise, coupled with the strobing lights and the overpowering heat a disassociative, transcendent state is created where your mind fills in the blank canvas that the void of noise creates. Some people said they could "hear" guns and air-raid sirens throughout the "Apocalypse" section- my brain told me I could hear crowds cheering, motorbikes roaring across plains, laughter. Ultimately the best thing I can say about them is that they make everyone in the audience use their imagination. And that's a neat trick.

Before anyone gets bent out of shape, Loveless is one of my favourite albums of all time, it's been a friend to me throughout my life and hearing the songs live made me a very happy man. The gig was enjoyable and well worth attending. It's just that the scales have fallen from my eyes now.

Just a (very loud) band.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Calling all kids

Wild Combination: A portrait of Arthur Russell is a documentary by Matt Wolf about the strange magic produced by Russell throughout his too-short life. Anyone who isn't aware of him should, in my opinion anyway, drop everything and get listening. Although you may have heard his music before, in ads, in clubs but the strange thing is, for such a supremely talented avant garde disco savant to remain so slept on is nothing short of incredible. The story is unremarkable at the outset, talented but mixed up cello-playing MidWestern kid runs away to San Fran in the late 70's and joins a commune. What transpires afterwards is like a skewed version of a folk tale in which, befriended by Allan Ginsberg, Russell decamps to New York where he lives in a building with the aforementioned Ginsberg, Richard Hell and no end of pale and interesting residents. Here Russell, who was sent to the closet by his fellow communards to practice his cello, set about creating a bewildering array of music starting as from a singer songwritery to becoming an amazing bandleader through making "Instrumentals 1-5" with former Modern Lover Ernie Brooks and Saxophonist Peter Zummo and a number of other players. Russell worked in collaborations on a type of Buddhist Pop music that even now sounds bizarrely contemporary- a few years ago while on holiday i put on "First Thought: Best Thought" which contains the aforementioned Instrumentals. Difficult to describe, these instrumentals have a strange, almost ritual quality, slightly off kilter, trancelike but still rock music, reminiscent of a very breezy Tortoise. That's Tortoise, although the similarity extends to our little shell-wearing buddy too as it has a persistent unhurried charm and seems entirely self-contained. Laboured metaphors abound when dealing with Russell because his music is so unique and unfathomable that coupled with his early death earns him the unhelpful "lost genius" tag. Wolf prefers to use "Icon" which i think fits well. Russell, at this stage developed a reputation as being frustrating, difficult to work and collaborate with and obsessively perfectionist (Tom Lee, Russells lover describes how he took nearly 6 years to complete the title track That's Us/Wild Combination!)

Russell was at this stage "out" and immersed in the New York underground disco scene. Here was a new, emergent subculture that allowed him to mess with a whole lot of equipment, techniques and instruments. Ideal. Russell produced some of my favourite disco records and when Go Bang! appears I practically fainted with pleasure. There's a good treatment in the film of this period although by Wolf's own admission at the Q&A afterwards he does get feedback that it doesn't deal with disco in enough detail. For me that is the tragedy of Russells life and more broadly the disco era, AIDS and drugs decimated this subculture and this is palpable in the film by the absence of so many people. In my opinion this is a strength of the film and the absence of so many key players communicates the sense of loss that many of the contributers felt (and obviously still feel).
The film uses interviews with Russells parents, lover, collaborators along with a few others. There are reconstructions of the Loft and Iowa which put russells music into a sort of context as well as a beautifully realised recreation of Arthur listening to his own tapes on the Staten Island ferry. This evocative image was the first thing that sparked Wolf's imagination to make this affectionate portrait of Russell. His parents are funny, worldly people who loved and encouraged their strange little boy. Russells partner Tom Lee is really moving and a real sense of the love between them is exquisitely portrayed. The music Russell left behind (hours of reels of tapes, DATS, regular cassettes- all unreleased) is the real legacy- songs that never saw the light of day are now being released by Audika. Many of these songs (particularly on Another Thought and Calling Out of Context) describe togetherness, the kind of mundane spiritual wonder that you feel on a boring Tuesday evening when sat on the couch together eating crisps. Other work is entirely individual, like being alone on a pier in the middle of the night. The magic of Russells music is the way the music creates this transportative power in ordinariness, the zen of living completely in the moment, whether losing your mind on a wild dancefloor, cuddling on the couch or listening to music on the deck of a ferry.
Hannah McGill paid tribute to Optimo's DJ Twitch for introducing her and countless others to Russells music. He deserves it, Optimo have been pushing the NY Disco sound long before the haircut brigade cottoned onto it. For my own part I have Greg n' Shane to thank for introducing me to the wonky rhodes organ wonder of Loose Joints.
She got one thing wrong though, the "best club night in the world" is obviously Subculture!