Thursday, 30 September 2010

Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre (Review)

If a company's quality is measured by both its creative output and its innovative approach, then it should not be a surprise that the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre Company has hundreds, if not thousands, of admirers. Their recent shows at Sadler's Wells were evidence of an ensemble that has mapped out a clear route to the future, without forgetting its rich past. The performances were also proof that with the imminent change of leadership, the legacy of this US national treasure is secured.

Judith Jamison, the current director, will continue to be in charge of the company until July 2011, when she will pass the baton to Robert Battle, founder of Battleworks Dance Company and long-time collaborator with AADT. If we use the latter's two pieces, 'The Hunt' and 'In/side' as a litmus test to judge what lies on the horizon, rest assured, dear dance lovers, the kids are alright.

Alvin Ailey succeeds where other companies falter because it combines elements that at first sight might be disparate and yet in AADT's hands they are made to look like natural companions. For example the way they amalgamate Broadway, jazz and ballet is unique. The athleticism of its performers makes you wonder sometimes if you're watching a dance show or a gymnastics display. And the feeling that permeates each piece renders AADT's repertoire sui generis.

On this occasion we were treated to 'Suite Otis' as the starter. This is a hip-snaking, skirt-swirling, waist-gyrating tribute to the late soul singer Otis Redding. Jam-packed with comedy moments, tongue-in-cheek routines and fast movements this choreography reminded me that sometimes you just want to watch a company having a jolly good time, narrative included or not.

This was followed by one of those pieces that has 'classic' scrawled all over its forehead. 'The Hunt' might present itself as a testosterone-driven study of male tribalism, but, in my opinion, the choreography delves deeper. Set to a soundtrack by percussion group Les Tambours du Bronx, 'The Hunt' is an exploration of men's inner struggle with their feminine side. Performed by six bare-chested men clad in long skirts, the choreography is brutal and violent at times. At some point it suddenly changes style - though not tempo - when three of the six dancers partner up with the others and execute a dance that is at times ambiguous and delicate. The end of the choreography finds three of the dancers (it's hard to figure out whether they are the same who chose to dance in pairs) on the floor, overcome by their counterparts.

'Dancing Spirit' had me clapping internally all the way through. Incorporating elements of Afro-Cuban (yes!) and Brazilian dance, the piece was a wonderful take on African culture and how it has influenced and shaped the US. The turquoise and white costumes were simple and yet against the backdrop of undulating bodies, the colours seemed to take a life of their own. The blend of Duke Ellington's score with Oggun and Asoyi's steps (to name but two representatives of Afro-Cuban culture present in the choreography) has been the boldest approach I've seen in contemporary dance in a long time. The liquidity and ease with which music and dance meshed together made one wonder whether Yoruba culture had been an intrinsic part of African-American social make-up in the same way it was in Cuba and Brazil.

Nina Simone's 'Wild is the Wind' was the soundtrack to 'In/side', a piece that showed off Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre's versatility. Whereas the first three works were mainly performed upright with more emphasis on hips, shoulders and waist, 'In/side' was a meditative study on longing and breaking free. The soloist's journey across the floor reminded me of a butterfly as it travels through the caterpillar-to-cocoon phase until it finally takes flight. Nina's voice added extra gravitas to a poignant choreography.

The stage, then, was set for the traditional Alvin Ailey jamboree, otherwise known as 'Revelations'. I've seen it countless times, and you might think that I would have been jaded by now, bored out of my senses. But hell no, as long as AADT performs 'Revelations' with the same zeal and vigour as if it was opening night, January 31st, 1960, I will continue to enjoy this exuberant choreography. Based on spirituals and blues, the piece tells the story of African-American culture, from slavery to freedom. At times sombre and at others uplifting, 'Revelations' has become Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre's trademark choreographic work.

Given, then, its rich history and its clear vision for the future, all I can hope for is that when I'm fifty-two myself I will be as creative and vibrant as Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre continues to be. Here's to another half century, AADT! Enjoy the clips.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 3rd October at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Jesus of Montreal (Review)

When I was younger I got involved in various drama projects. One of them was led by an independent producer and director who had gained certain notoriety in the alternative cinema scene in Havana. We used to rehearse every Sunday morning and although our work never made it to the screen - to my chagrin - I enjoyed the sessions because they were extremely liberating. A key exercise was to remember a sad episode from our childhood, act on it and come out of it as quick as possible. I was good at the recalling and reliving it but less effective at the letting go of it.

The same happened to Lothaire Bluteau's character in "Jesus of Montreal".

If with "The Decline of the American Empire", Canadian director Denys Arcand gave us a comprehensive view of Montreal's chattering classes, their inhibitions and repressions (especially of a sexual nature), with "Jesus of Montreal" he turned the seaport city into a version of Gethsemane.

A Catholic priest (Fr. Leclerc, played by Gilles Pelletier) asks an actor (Daniel, played by Lothaire Bluteau) to update a Passion play he's been staging for many years. The piece feels somewhat dated and the prelate thinks that a fresher approach will help his church gain new worshippers. Daniel's approach is, for want of a better word, unconventional. At some point he even hints that Jesus's biological father is a Roman soldier who leaves Palestine soon after. The production is very successful but it falls foul of the higher church authorities who order Fr. Leclerc to stop it. With the boundaries of art and reality becoming more and more blurred, Daniel's life starts mirroring that of his character, Jesus of Nazareth. The final scene in a Montreal underground station is harrowing, if also poetic.

'Jesus of Montreal' is the type of film that you have to watch more than once in order to understand the symbolisms in it. Having had very little religious knowledge when I first saw it, I was more impressed with the performances and photography than with the parallels between Christ's tribulations and that of the actors', especially Daniel. This time around I looked closer and the various allegorical themes were easier to read: Daniel wrecking the film equipment at a commercial when he thinks that his fellow thespian Mireille is being taken advantage of is reminiscent of the cleansing of the temple; Daniel's apperance before a judge echoes Jesus' appearance before Pontius Pilate. And then there's the ending, which, depending on your taste, can be uplifting or schmaltzy. After his death, three of Daniel's organs, including a heart and an eye, are transplanted into three other patients. The message is clear: Daniel has become Christ the Redeemer.

But beyond this cinematographic hagiography, Denys Arcand builds a credible tableau vivant where he explores human acts and emotions such as hypocrisy, intolerance and optimism. Far from being a celibate priest, Fr. Leclerc is sleeping with Constance, one of the actresses in the production. The fine, sharp line that runs between left-of-field art and its commercial cousin is straddled more than once; one of the actors that joins the ensemble makes ends meet by providing voice-overs for hardcore pornographic films. After the church authorities demand that the play be abandoned, Daniel and his troupe disobey the orders from above and attempt to perform it regardless of the consequences, which in this case are fatal for Daniel.

With the recent papal visit to the UK, the Catholic Church has come under scrutiny once more and its stand on various issues such as women, marriage, homosexuality and child sexual abuse has been debated more openly. It was a perfect (albeit unplanned, I swear), time to watch again this cinematic gem.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre (Review)', to be posted on Thursday 30th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I am sitting in the back garden in my house. The grass has just been cut (by me), my daughter is out on the street playing with a group of friends, my wife is cooking a Sunday roast and my son is practicing his saxophone. On the table in front of me lay two excellent articles: 'Over the moon: Adam Phillips on the happiness myth' and 'The Nature of Beauty' by Nicolas Humphrey (the former can be read here for free, whereas the latter is subject to online subscription, although the magazine where it appears, Prospect, can be purchased at any branch of WH Smith. You can read the intro here).

Let me just get back to that mown grass. Let me soak up the smell of freshness, the scent of earthiness. It evokes childhood memories, hope, optimism... happiness. Or is it satisfaction instead of happiness?

Recently a fellow blogger gave me an award that came with a few questions attached to it. One of them asked me what made me happy. I replied then that I did not think much of happiness, that satisfaction was a much more desired goal. I still have not changed my mind about that but after reading the two aforementioned essays, my mind began to wander.

Adam Phillips thinks that "One of the ways in which happiness is made to seem like an inclusive ideal – the ways it charms us – is by our asserting that by definition the things that matter most to us must make us happy, that that is how we know they are good. It's as though one word could do the work of the moral imagination." I agree with him totally, but only insofar as conscious decision-making is involved. If I buy tickets to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre Company, I know it's very likely that I will derive pleasure from the show and consequently I will feel happy. However, there is a deeper subconscious mode that is triggered off whenever we are exposed to stimuli of whose effects we might not have been aware before, for instance: my son playing the saxophone, my daughter enjoying her friends' company, my wife cooking a Sunday roast. I did not make a conscious decision about these events. They just happened.

That leads me to Humphrey's essay. He analyses beauty and its place within evolutionary theory, arguing that the more we learn about this phenomenon (beauty, that is) the less we understand it. He correctly points out that biological survival doesn't/can't explain the existence of beauty because although on the outside its effect on humans might be of a minor significance - compared with the need for food, for example -, it really does enrich people's lives and some of us would find it hard to get by without it around. By his logic, then, a lawnmower, a wind instrument and a dead Gallus domesticus being given the perma-tan treatment, combined together to give me a 'happy moment'.

Beauty, the contemplation and absorption of it, should ideally beget happiness. Or so Adam Phillips seems to think. Although he uses the word 'beauty' only once in his essay there are plenty of examples of elements that can lead to happiness and whose presence gives us intense pleasure: a stable family, non-competitive siblings, loyal friends, trusting partners, a good education, the list goes on. That's why the acquisition of this mental state is so important for us. It is also the reason why we go to great lengths to achieve it. Including making other people unhappy.

Adam writes: "bad things can make us happy – and by bad things I mean things consensually agreed to be unacceptable. It clearly makes some people happy to live in a world without Jews, or homosexuals, or immigrants, and so on." It is one of the few times where I have come across someone acknowledging openly that what we call 'evil acts' (a very misleading term in my opinion) are nothing but the result of someone chasing their own version of Heaven - religious pun not intended.

One of my longer-lasting memories from my childhood is to see footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two cities where the US government carried out two atomic bombings. At the time I must have been five or six, but I recall marvelling at the shape of the mushroom cloud and how eerie and spellbinding it looked. That I was overwhelmed with shame years later when I learned about the history behind it doesn't eliminate the effect this 'beautiful' picture had on me when I was little. It only goes to show that sometimes for humans to be happy, misery has to be included in the picture. Let me go back to my opening paragraph: when I cut the lawn in my garden, I probably killed a few worms, spiders and creepy crawlies. My son playing the saxophone might have been disturbing for my neighbour and let's not even go into the whole Sunday roast malarkey. Luckily for chickens my wife insists that we buy the free range variety. Apparently they have more space in which to move and better living conditions, but we all know where they will end up: on your plate. Happiness (is a warm gun)/Bang Bang Shoot Shoot.

Although both writers are writing about different phenomena, very often their ideas overlap. For example, Nicholas avers that "beauty stirs us up, and takes us over - giving rise on occasion to the peculiar feeling of 'flow', 'melding', or 'union'." That statement rang many bells when I read Phillip's description of how the process of happiness is attained: "If liberty is there when tyranny is taken away, happiness is there when whatever makes us unhappy is removed. From a pragmatic point of view the art of a good life involves removing the obstacles to happiness; the picture, if we visualise it, is of something looked for, something looked forward to, and of there being something in the way." That 'looking for/forward' is essential to the feeling of 'flow' that Humphrey describes. It implies movement, progression, action, it means that something is going on. Without getting too anal about it, the picture I depicted at the beginning of my post united diverse elements, which, as standalone factors, might have or might have not been conducive to my 'happy moment'. But when put together they provided joy.

There are a few flaws, however, in both articles, in my view. In the case of 'The Nature of Beauty', the examples and images used are too Euro-centric. It's rather unfortunate that the author falls into the usual trap of men of a certain age, class and colour because this takes away some of the polish off his well-written essay. Rembrandt, Mozart and Camus all have cameos in a piece that could well have included some of the beautiful works of art produced in Africa, America (the continent) and Asia. In fact, if he ever reads this post, may I suggest to Nicholas that he pop by the blog Tulsi Tree, written by Jai Joshi? Jai has a regular section where she posts stories from the Mahabharat, an epic poem of ancient India. The beauty of the tale is not just in the narration, but also in its prescience. Many a time I have left comments on her thread saying that a particular passage reminded me of a current situation. Besides this white, middle-class, middle-aged, male western approach, Humphrey's four final paragraphs left me feeling disheartened and a tad bit angry. Disheartened because up to then he had made a very a good case for why beauty was an indispensable and necessary human trait despite the fact that it came lower in the hierarchy of human needs. Yet, for him this highly sensitive nature that we have developed througout our evolutionary period is merely a response to a design created by an 'artist'. My anger arose from the fact that he thinks this 'artist' is God. Without meaning to sound like a militant atheist (thanks Benny, love the new nickname), I can only say to Nicholas that my response to beauty is based on trying not to question it, just perceiving it and feeling it as it is. That 'someone' is massaging landscapes into beautiful shapes for my amusement has never entered my mind.

With Adam's piece the only flaw I could see was that he focuses too much on the notion of happiness in the US according to Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." It's not clear whether he is writing about the effect Jefferson's words have had on US citizens for centuries (which has been well covered), or if he finds fault with the original document - maybe its highly charged idealism. My take on it is that the Declaration of Independence was a shorthand (and at the time a very revolutionary attitude) for the right to pursue various goals whose outcome would bring satisfaction. Note, satisfaction, not just happiness.

Because, as I sit here in the back gaden in my house, listening to my son playing his saxophone, waiting for my wife to call us to dinner and soaking up the smell of freshly cut grass, I'm overcome by a sense of deep gratification. But I bet Mr Chicken would disagree.

© 2010

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: 'Jesus of Montreal (Review)', to be published on Tuesday 28th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Let's Talk About...

... picnics. Yes, now that summer's ended and the spitting's started - of the pluvial kind, mind you - let's talk about those (sometimes) gross lawn reunions where bodily fluids like saliva are shared in the open air.
A picnic, when well organised, is an enlightening experience. It heightens the sense of being at one with nature, it enhances our community spirit. For that to happen, the ideal number in attendance should be... two. Yes, you and your partner only. Or a friend instead of your boyf/girlf. OK, OK, bring the kids along if you have any and if you must, but don't tell me I didn't warn you. Because when you run out of juice/fizzy drinks and all you're left with is an unopened pot of hummus and a bunch of carrot sticks, you'll realise it was a bad idea to tell them to tag along.

Picnics are supposed to be fun-packed activities where you run into people you last saw when you were totally focused on putting chewing gum in their hair, or slapping (accidentally?) a piece of paper on their back reading: 'I'm an under-achiever and proud of it'. And don't you even dare to acknowledge either misdemeanor. C'mon, you don't want to spoil the party, do you? These open-air outings have become a step of the growing-up ritual. Just after the gap year and getting legless. Picnics fall somewhere between you landing your first job and moving out of the parental home. In fact, picnics could be considered a training course in order to learn how to organise your own wedding. An entry level qualification, if you wish, equivalent to a GSCE.

But they do fail, don't they, picnics? Why, though? I can think of two elements: personality and nature.

Let's go to the human factor first. The most obvious example is the scrounger. This is the individual you see more often in large outdoor congregations and who doesn't bring anything to the party. Yup. He/she (let's settle for 'he', shall we? This situation is more common in blokes) arrives surreptitiously, usually he is a very popular person, and after greeting everyone, including Auntie Carol whom he never visits despite living five minutes away from her house, sits down to munch. And does he munch! Put away the salami! Cover the barbecued chicken wings! Don't dare to bring out the Cloudy Lemonade. The scrounger works like a locust, he strips the picnic of food. But unlike the short-horned grasshopper, he does it subtly, without you noticing. By the time you've finished eating your salad (he rarely touches it, which is strange as most scroungers are omnivorous), you notice that there aren't any Kettle Chips left. Any further enquiry will be fruitless. The scrounger will give you that sad-Jack-Russell look and you will end up blaming Auntie Carol.

Nature's influence on picnics comes in various forms. The first one is the weather. You watch the weather forecast a week before the excursion, looking for encouraging signs. If you're a man, you can't wait to break into that new vest you bought for a song at Brixton market. Especially since you started going to the gym. If you're a woman, you're looking forward to wearing that nice summer dress you were given a couple of years ago and that has since lain in the bottom of your drawer. If you're a child, all you care about is trying your new catapult. Preferably by hurling small stones at your cousin's bottom. And then the day arrives and whilst you are laying all the various jars, pots, plates and the like, the temperature, initially a sweltering 30 degrees Celsius, drops to minus five. Or it rains, all of sudden. Rain accompanied by the wind, a northeasterly wind. Coming all the way from Russia. And you blame climate change, the coalition, your partner, Putin, God. But your picnic's ruined. That's the awful truth. Your vest is just that, a vest, with no sleeves. And the summer dress is a flimsy piece of material, insufficient to shield you from mother nature. Only your child is happy. But his cousin is not; he can't walk properly.

The second natural influence can be summed up in one word: wasps. Loads of them. Millions of them. At some point you think that your companions have mutated into wasps, in the same way Jeff Goldblum became a fly. Solution? Shoo them away. Oh no, they'll sting you. How about staying quiet until they go? Haha, what do you think they are? Bears? Swatting them is a good option, but in most picnics nowadays you'll get an animal activist who will try at first to reason out with you that that is not a good idea, what with wasps being insects with feelings and emotional problems of the Woody Allen variety. But if you don't stop, expect our animal lover to report you to your local RSPCA branch. So, there's your picnic gone out of the window.

Conclusion, then. Picnics: heavenly summer outdoor excursions or self-delusional human activities? Your verdict.

© 2010

Next Post, 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on 26th September at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Killer Opening Songs - Ya Empezó La Fiesta by Los Van Van (The Party's Already Begun)

It's strange how we sometimes fail to notice the good quality of certain programmes or channels until they stop being a part of our lives. It was this situation in which Killer Opening Songs found himself recently when his TV package was reduced - through own volition, mind - and he lost Sky Arts on Freeview.

This was a channel that had grown slowly but surely on K.O.S. despite the fact that at first he did his utmost to resist its allure, you know, Sky being a Murdoch product and K.O.S.'s being a conscientious objector to the Australian magnate's ever-expanding media empire. But the offering was too tempting to ignore and little by little our Introductory Track with Musically Homicidal Tendencies succumbed to Sky Arts' excellent schedule.

Amongst K.O.S.'s favourite programmes the 'Classic Albums' slot took pole position. To see Ulrich, May and Grohl waxing lyrical about albums such as 'Metallica', 'A Night At the Opera' and 'Nevermind' respectively, gave Killer Opening Songs a bettter understanding of how and why these records became masterpieces, as well as providing him with a powerful insight into the dynamics of the bands that produced them. The only flaw our little friend noticed, though, was that the programme didn't reach beyond the pop and rock medium. Where was the acknowledgement to an album like 'Headhunters', by keyboardist Herbie Hancock, which re-wrote the rules (if any) of funk? Or come to think of that, how about a record like 'Songs in the Key of Life' by musical genius Stevie Wonder? No mention whatsoever? And if one stepped outside of the - mainly - Anglophone enviroment in which 'Classic Albums' operated, how about recognising the vast body of work left behind by the Tropicália movement in Brazil?

Or maybe, the programme could have settled for one of the most ground-breaking albums to have come out of the Cuban salsa scene of the 90s: '¡Ay Dios, Ampárame!' by the fourteen-piece, quadragenarian, musical powerhouse 'Los Van Van' (literally, my people, 'The Go Go').

In the same way that Mozart equates musical excellence, The Beatles superb pop and Fela Kuti politically-minded afro-beat, Los Van Van epitomise the cornucopia of tradition, experimentation, artistry and prowess that characterise Cuban music. If you ever visit Cuba, just say the name 'Van Van' and watch your interlocutor opening his/her mouth wide to reveal an ear-to-ear smile. Los Van Van are Cuba through and through.

However, we have fate to thank for their existence. It was only after bassist Juan Formell, director of the band from the start, began to look for new sounds that he decided to part company with Revé y su Charangón, where he was the musical director. This search led him to form a new group in 1969 that could combine the more traditional elements of Cuban music with modern ones, especially those arriving via the world of pop. The rhythm born out of this approach was 'songo', the result of the fusion of rumba, son, funk and jazz. The dance accompanying it and performed by couples everywhere was called casino. Los Van Van had been born and with it Cuban salsa.

K.O.S. hopes that someday someone can sit down and chronicle the immense contribution that Los Van Van have made to Cuban music. At some point dubbed 'The Rolling Stones' (because of its longevity) or the 'Kool and The Gang' (because of its size) of salsa, Los Van Van turned Cuban music on its head. First, they changed the traditional charanga-format which depended heavily on instruments such as violin and flute into a percussion-, piano- and brass-driven orchestra. Secondly, they were innovative, Juan Formell never being one to fear risk-taking. The results were songs such as 'Eso Que Anda' (an electronica-infused experiment that K.O.S. unfortunately never found very appealing, but which was revolutionary at the time, early 80s), 'Sandunguera' (guaracha) and 'La Habana no aguanta más' (son montuno). Los Van Van went beyond salsa's natural borders and collaborated with artists whose musical inclinations could be seen to be at odds with the band's ethos. However, the results were often successful as in the case of the Cuban singer songwriter Silvio Rodriguez.

Let's concentrate then on '¡Ay Dios, Ampárame!' (I can almost hear my alter ego, K.O.S., urging me to keep on track). 1995, when the record was released, was a vintage year for Cuba's salsa scene. The economic crisis that had engulfed the country between the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990 was at its apogee by the mid-nineties. But Cuban musicians were not deterred by the collapse of the ex-Soviet Union and its domino effect on the Cuban economy. NG La Banda, Charanga Habanera and Irakere were just some of the bands dancers could move their feet and shake their hips to. El Salón Rosado de la Tropical, the Mecca of dancehalls in Havana, became again the must-go place for salsa lovers, Cuban or not. In the midst of this musical explosion many people wondered how Los Van Van would respond to a new generation for whom cheesy Iberoamerican ballads and Anglophone rap and rock had already become the soundtrack of their lives. And what a response Formell and his musicians gave! The opening track of '¡Ay Dios, Ampárame!' had all the elements that had made Los Van Van a household name in Cuban music: 'Ya Empezó La Fiesta' ('The Party's Already Started') had a 'hard' sound, thus incorporating the timba rhythm that was becoming customary amongst other salsa bands, strong vocals (Mayito Rivera had just joined the orchestra), excellent arrangements and a more commercial approach (the greetings in various languages pointed at a wider exposure to the outside world, economic embargo notwithstanding). It wasn't a surprise that the album received such a warm welcome.

Yet, as it's happened sometimes with other records throughout music's story, the song that stood out from the beginning was not the Killer Opening Son. And why should it have been? Listen to David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' and the title track is overshadowed by its follow-up, 'Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed' (in K.O.S.'s humble opinion). Same with the album 'Goats Head Soup' by The Rolling Stones, the star of the show is 'Angie', the fifth song in the record. In the case of '¡Ay Dios, Ampárame!' the melody that drove the band's fans wild was 'Soy Todo' (I'm Everything', click here to watch a live performance of the song). 'Soy Todo' started life as a poem by a poet called El Ambia and K.O.S. was present the first time it was read in public. The verses explain what it is to be Cuban and how our African heritage has shaped our cultural identity. Mayito mentions many of the orishas (Yoruba for 'deities') that make up the rich Afro-Cuban pantheon. The song proved controversial and wasn't given much radio airtime, or at least a lot less than the other tracks from the same album. In a country ridden with corruption and prostitution, the last thing the government needed was the most popular salsa band in the nation asking people to put their faith in Olofi, the Yoruba deity commonly synchretised with the Catholic God (although the comparison is misleading). Today 'Soy Todo' remains an anthem for Cubans both on the island and abroad. But, tonight, Killer Opening Songs asks you to put on your dancing shoes and shake your hips to the sound of one of the best salsa bands in the world. And if you work for Sky Arts programming department, get in touch, K.O.S. won't charge you. Enjoy because 'Ya Empezó La Fiesta'.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Let's Talk About...', to be published on Thursday 23rd September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Can there ever exist a person whose life is so calm and untroubled that it doesn't merit being written about? This is a question that crossed my mind recently whilst I was reading about Tony Blair's memoir 'A Journey'. His book comes hot on the heels of a similar tell-all volume: Peter Mandelson's 'The Third Man', which saw the light in the summer. Mandelson was one of the architects of New Labour and a Machiavellian figure in British politics for many years. And as if that wasn't enough, Fidel Castro Ruz, the former president of my country of origin, has also joined the memoirists' brigade with his own oeuvre, 'The Strategic Victory', an account of the armed struggle he organised against the Batista regime pre-1959. If I was to don my leprechaun's hat (which I keep fairly close to me in these days of cricket scandals and phone tapping allegations) I would combine the titles of the three books and would come up with something like "The Third Man's Journey Towards the Strategic Victory". Delete characters according to taste. Or disgust.

Facetiousness aside (mind you, only just), this is a funny time to be a reader of memoirs and biographies. They keep popping up like dandelions in the spring. And like the golden-yellow weeds, a lot of them are not a welcome sight. Pseudo-celebrities and athletes have tackled the genre head-on as the sole way in which to demonstrate to all and sundry that they can string two sentences together, conveniently overlooking the fact that everybody knows there's usually a 'ghost' writer lurking in the background. Very often the lives whose details assail us in bookshops belong to people who've barely had any experiences in life about which to write. as I write this post some of the most popular bigraphies, autobiograhies and memoirs on are 'JLS: Just Between Us: Our Private Diary', Peter Andre's 'My World: in pictures and words' and 'Through My Eyes' by Cheryl Cole. Based on their content (I had a quick skim-through), the answer to the opening sentence of my post is: yes, some people's lives do not merit being written about.

However our narcissism would not let that happen. Human beings are self-indulgent by nature and politicians, sportspeople and artists take pole position when it comes to egocentrism. Hence the memoir or biography as a vehicle to let it all out. At this point I would like to make a distinction. A memoir is a record of events of which a person had intimate knowledge at a particular point in his or her life, whereas a biography or autobiographhy is a historical account of a person's life. The former is sometimes used as a conciliatory or antagonistic (Blair on Brown, for instance) tool, whereas the latter is usually written when the subject's dead, although not always.

This egocentrism, mixed with our natural penchant for prying into other people's lives, have given us a Pandora's Box-like scenario where the likes of Katie Price and Victoria Beckham reign unchallenged and trump more honest and gripping biographies like that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's 'Infidel'. And this picture is not even confined to the realms of non-fiction. Scan through the shelves of your local bookshop and you'll find novels whose leitmotif is human misery. If many of them read and sound like true accounts of hardship is because the authors have realised that they have a ready-made clientele who have been softened by real-life tales from those they worship.

It wasn't always thus. I have read a fair amount of biographies and autobiographies in my life (fewer memoirs however, although Primo Levi's 'If This Is a Man / The Truce' remains one of my top favourites) and what I'm usually surprised by is how much the author empathises with his or her subject. The prime example is 'Fouché', a biography written by the Austrian novelist, journalist and playwright Stefan Zweig. Never mind the fact that the French politician has become over the years a byword for calculated cunning, Herr Zweig's masterstroke is showing us the circumstances that laid the grounds for Fouché's transformation from a revolutionary firebrand during the French Republic into a cold-blooded manipulator by the time Napoleon was in power. I remember closing the book and feeling a sense of satisfaction. So, this is how politics works, I said to myself. That was more than twenty years ago and I still haven't changed my mind.

Another good example of how deep and human biographies used to be is 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X', part historical account, part memoir. If I was asked which part of the book I recall more vividly I would have to answer that it was when Malcolm acknowledged that violence and black racialism were not the weapons with which to fight the establishment. For a man with a past rooted in hustling, drug addiction and later on strict, religious zealousness, this U-turn meant that he had finally matured and achieved a new and higher, I would dare to add, degree of rational thinking.

Nowadays, however we are flooded by a deluge of confessional tales whose relevance would pale next to a short story written by a six-year-old. It seems that the same invitation that blogger extends to future cyber-writers to 'share your thoughts, photos and more with your friends and the world' (provided that, as in my case, blogger is your blog service provider) has been lapped up by non-entities shoving their presence down our throats. Shallowness has replaced depth as the main drive to get your (sometimes barely-lived) life story in the bookshops.

Let me, then, return to my introductory question: Can there ever exist a person whose life is so calm and untroubled that it doesn't merit being written about? In Blair and Mendelson's case, the answer is yes. Because although they have led far from unexciting lives, they are not telling us anything new, or what we really want to know. The last thing we need is more political spin and back-slapping. As for Fidel, what I'm really keen to know is what happened after 1959, Comandante en Jefe. And I want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, warts and all. Now, there's a biography/memoir I would love to read.

I sometimes let people know about events in London, whether I am going or not. Next Saturday 25th there will be one such activity that people might be interested in attending. This is from fellow blogger, Sila Blume who writes the Coffee Dramatist blog. I've included her promo in the same way she sent it to me. I hope you can make it.

to intensify:
to minimize:
to listen:

early piano music

sila blume: piano

7 pm / saturday september 25th 2010Tickets: £9 (£7 concessions)
The Schott Music Shop38 Great Marlborough StreetLondon W1F 7BBTelelefon: 020 7534 0710

© 2010

Next Post 'Killer Opening Songs', to be published on Tuesday 21st September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum

I have a confession to make. Nothing drives me wilder than the smell of peppers being roasted or baked. The only other aroma that comes close to it is onions and garlic skating on sizzling oil on a frying pan. Which is why when I came across the recipe below in the July issue of the Observer Food Monthly I knew I had to share it with you, dear fellow bloggers and readers.

I'm aware that summer is gone and autumn is poking its sleepy face through my bedroom window already but this side dish or light lunch works with any season, like most of Nigel Slater's recipes, as I've found out over the years.

Baked peppers with a summer sauce

Serves 2-4 as a side dish (or light lunch, believe me)

large peppers
4olive oil
For the basil dressing:
basil leaves, a couple of good handfuls
oregano leaves, a small handful
mint leaves, a small handful
garlic 1 plump clove, peeled
extra-virgin olive oil about 150ml

Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Cut the peppers in half, tug out the seeds and cores and lay cut-side up in a baking tin. Trickle a little olive oil over them then bake until the skins have blackened. Remove from the oven and cover with a tea towel or clingfilm. (The steam this creates will make it easier to remove the skins of the pepper.)

Put the basil leaves into a blender or food processor together with the oregano and mint, the peeled clove of garlic and the olive oil. Add a good pinch of sea salt and mix till almost smooth.
Peel the skins of the peppers and put them on a plate. Trickle the herb sauce around them and serve warm.

The music to go with this recipe is full of unbridled hedonism. The reason is simple: Nigel is one of the few food writers (I can't think of any others, and Nigella 'tries' too much for my liking) who makes the phrase 'plump clove' sound both sensuous and naughty without meaning to.

Hence my first musical choice. This tune is sick. The DJ and keyboard player sound houseish, the singer and backing vocalists are pure soul, the brass section, THE BRASS SECTION! yeeeesss! is jazzy and the guitar, drums and bass combine for a slow-burning reggae sound. This is the sickest melody - 'sick' as in 'good', by the way - I've come across in a loooooooooooong time. If this song carried a label it would read: 'No artificial flavours or colourants, just raw ingredients'. Fat Freddy's Drop for you, ladies and gentleman.

Telmary is a Cuban rapper who has a very strong side (she needs it badly in such a male-dominated medium) as well as a softer one as the clip below demonstrates. I reviewed her CD, 'A Diario', here last year and everytime I listen to it I never cease to be amazed at the wild array of melodies her record contains. Whenever I hear this tune or watch this video I think of that olive oil sliding down the sides of those peppers as they are getting baked. Indulgent.

It's a pity that Macy Gray's subsequent records haven't achieved the same success as her debut album 'On How Life Is'. But this track from her sophomore effort, 'The Id', is as tasty as that plump, juicy garlic clove Nigel mentions in his recipe. Consume carefully. Have a brilliant weekend. Ta.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 19th September at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

"What's the point of pursuing apparently distorted 'readings' of the novel - i.e. Marxist/feminist?

AO4 expects you to acknowledge the effect the book has on different audiences - especially ones not guided by English teachers. (The teacher's reading is influenced by need for clarity - a key to help write quick fix essays)

Also helps us avoid over-simplifying - there is no need to distinguish between our/my
sense & sensibility reading and the intentions/character of the author; the former suggests a fairly dry/conservative figure; but how does this tally with her appetite for humour/nonsense and biographical sources.'

The above words were part of a typed note left in my copy of Jane Austen's 'Emma', sandwiched between the last page and the book's back cover. The text was longer but I've edited it for the purpose of this column. The words were not the only sign that betrayed the novel's second-hand bookshop look. Little scribblings, some less illegible than others, adorned the margins of the pages. The cover was slightly tattered.

Notes in passed-down books tell their own story. Over the years I have been exposed more and more to such tales as I have become a regular user of marketplace. Have you ever wondered why the previous owner highlighted that particular section in the book you're now holding? Or why did she or he circle that one specific word?

The note in my copy of 'Emma' did not make any sense to me. But that's because it wasn't intended to be read by me. Like Crusoe's sudden realisation that there was human life on the island he inhabited (even if it was just cannibals visiting his abode on a regular basis to kill and eat their prisoners) the only connection I was able to make with that other person was through a common bond of humanity. Footprints on a page. Speculation was another nexus, too. Reading the little-more-than hieroglyphics on the margins of the book prompted me to make up a mental image of this fellow Austen enthusiast. She was probably a woman, and here I was following the decades-old cliché that dictated that most readers of the Brontë sisters and Austen were female. Shame on me, but let's carry on, shall we? She was probably in her late thirties or early forties, financially independent, liberal-minded and interested in feminist issues. Her age was chiefly determined by linguistic factors. The language she used pointed at someone who was comfortable with the English vocabulary as opposed to those cardigan-tuggers and navel-gazers one encounters nowadays who pepper their conversations with words such as 'so', 'like' and 'kinda/sorta' instead of 'somehow/somewhat'. I pictured her as someone who was not slave to fashion (she probably used charity shops) but who wouldn't mind coughing up a bit for one of this season's apparently must-have items: a Cropped Military Jacket from Selfridges.

It's very likely that one of the reasons why I enjoyed 'Emma' better this time around (I first read it in uni and didn't like it at all) was because there was a subplot running alongside it that brought out the Sherlock Holmes in me. How else to react when you're reading a passage that has been underlined with the caption 'piss-taking' next to it?

That's the beauty of second-hand books as I've learnt over the years. And of second-hand CDs, too. I remember last December that when I ordered a copy of Aziza Mustafa Zadeh's 'Seventh Truth' I received a message from the seller telling me how much he and his girlfriend loved the record and the only reason they were parting with it was that they had an extra copy. I e-mailed him back telling him that I loved Aziza's music and that my two favourite albums by her were ' Dance of Fire' and 'Always'. He then replied to my missive saying that those two were his favourite ones, too. Needless to say I gave him a five-star rating on marketplace.

Like a message in a bottle, whose purpose is to reach out to the wider world, a book that has been previously owned carries a history hard to ignore. Those coffee/tea/food stains, telephone numbers scribbled down in a rush on a torn page and then left behind ('I'm sure that I wrote it somewhere, I know, I had my book in one hand and my mobile in the other'), highlighted passages to be re-read and analysed afterwards with the intention of being discussed online (yup, that's me); this is all part of the reading - and writing - experience. It's one of the reasons why I read and why I love buying second-hand books.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum', to be published on Thursday 16th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The official website of the Welsh Tourist Board, 'Visit Wales', includes the following caption on its homepage: 'Wales. Home of proper holidays. Phrasebook optional, sense of adventure essential, indifference best left at home'. Nothing wrong with that paragraph but I would also add: 'faculty of smelling indispensable, warm handshakes included in the package'. Because as I write this post those are two of the many indelible moments that have stuck in my mind.

As soon as you cross the Severn Bridge, which divides England (via South Gloucestershire) and Wales (Monmouthshire) you're hit by an all-embracing, warm - as in friendly - breeze. Roll down your car window a couple of inches and let the interior of your vehicle be invaded by the soft waft coming from the estuaries of the rivers Severn and Wye. And that's your first introduction to Cymru (that's Welsh for Wales).

Immediately after the M4 becomes your observatory and your automobile the moving camera through which you soak up the greenery the Welsh countryside so well provides. The dual language in which most road signs are written reminds you that although part of the UK, the Welsh are a proud nation and that's shown in the fact that their lingo is becoming more and more popular with youngsters now joining adults at evening classes.

The M4 changes to the A40 and eventually you come to the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park (via the A487) with its breathtaking landscapes. This is the UK's only coastal National Park as its official website proudly proclaims. A place where wildlife and people live side by side and where one minute one is looking at a sheer drop (and fretting over letting one of the little ones come anywhere near it) and the next minute one is sipping a cold drink on one of the park's sandy beaches.

Our trip ended near Cardigan, a town that was celebrating its 900th anniversary as a town around those days. Our caravan was in the middle of a farm tended by a lovely lady, her husband and her two sons. On one side we could see the sea whereas on the other one a small range of hills made the prospect of going on walks very enticing indeed.

The first two days were taken over by beach trips, especially as we were almost incommunicado (we decided to bring a portable stereo at the last minute) and were unaware of what the weather would be like the next morning. Both Tresaith and Penbryn Beach proved to be attractive spots, though the water was a tad bit too cold for my liking. Yes, you're right, I didn't get in. My children and my wife did, however, and they confirmed my suspicions: the water was freezing. But they had fun. At Tresaith a small waterfall (originating from the river Saith) cascaded over the cliffs onto the beach, thus providing a beautiful sight for those venturing beyond the sandy beach's borders.

Penbryn beach, on the other hand, was longer. The kids had fun surfing (one of the neighbours in the caravan camp lent us a couple of surfboards) and playing in the stream. Although we had to walk from the car park to the beach (there's a dropping off point at the beach edge) the lush vegetation on one side of the road was a perfect and soothing companion. Later, during our stay in Wales, Penbryn beach became the starting point of one of the longest and most-enduring walks my wife and I have undertaken in our life.

One of the goals we had set for ourselves as a family before the beginning of our holiday was to try the local cuisine in Wales as often as our finances would allow us. To achieve this, we decided to dine out at least three times during our seven-day sojourn. It's a testament to the good culinary skills, hospitality and friendliness displayed by the local inn owner that we kept coming back to his establishment. Yes, meine liebe Damen und Herren, the Brynhoffnant Inn, on the A487 Aberystwyth-bound, is the place to eat if you're staying in the Cardigan area. The full address is Brynhoffnant Inn, Brynhoffnant, Llandysul SA44 6DU, telephone number 01239 654 961 and I strongly recommend you give it a try. The atmosphere is great, the food superb (the roasted lamb with mint sauce is fabulous) and the prices are reasonable. As with most things in life, it's the human factor that makes the difference and in this instance we felt very welcomed by the locals.

Our sightseeing experience included Cilgerran Castle, Cardigan town and Aberporth. In addition my wife and I went on a walk around Penbryn which turned out to be more than we had bargained for.

Cilgerran Castle (Castell Cilgerran in Welsh) is a stunning historical building that overlooks the river Teifi. What sets it apart from similar medieval constructions is the fact that it has two massive round towers instead of one. Over the centuries the castle, which is in excellent conditions, has been witness to the sad record of conquest and looting that has befallen the Welsh nation. A joke I read in a postcard in a local town said that when God created the world he had made Wales the most beautiful country on earth, with a friendly population and optimum living conditions. When asked by an angel if he wasn't going too far in giving away so many good things to just one country, God replied: "You just wait until you see the neighbours they're getting".

A couple of miles from Cilgerran is the Welsh Wildlife Centre with plenty of activities for families and children. It was there that we chose to go on the badger trail, one of the many circular walks available in the area. And it was there, too, that the 'warm handshake' scenario, mentioned in the opening paragraph, took place.

We set off on a path that according to the map we carried with us would take us nicely around the Wildlife Centre and to the river Teifi. After walking for about half a mile we noticed that the trail, far from coiling itself up like a snake, continued to stretch out ahead for as long as the eye could reach. That didn't seem right but as I was leading the way, I pressed on. Maybe the sign reading 'You are now leaving the reserve' should have rung bells. But you know that comment people make sometimes about blokes choosing not to ask for directions and preferring to get utterly lost instead? Well, they might have a point. In the end, my wife did approach some fellow walkers coming in the opposite direction and they said that had we carried on on the same path we would have got to the town surrounding Cilgerran Castle. Yes, beat me over the head with that frying pan, guv.

We made our way back slowly and after a while I asked an elderly gentleman I came across whether we were anywhere nearer where we were supposed to be. He smiled at me and said: "My young fellow, if you carry down this path, you will come to a little fork. Take the left path and you should be back on the road, leading to the car park. Go past the car park, past the Wildlife Centre and that's where the walk starts." And all this delivered in that lovely sing-song Welsh accent and sealed with a warm handshake. We finished our physical exercise for the day after we which we all decamped to... yes, you guessed it, the Brynhoffnant Inn.

Cardigan is a picturesque, little town with a rich mix of nature and culture. It proudly sports a stunning coastline but if you prefer a more urban environment there are stores galore that cater to different tastes. My favourite shops were off the main road, in a hidden cul-de-sac, though, the Indoor Market is worth paying a visit to. Cardigan also introduced me to the Welsh sense of humour. Graffitied on a wall I saw a caption that read: Free Wales! Unluckily for the transgressor someone had mischievously inserted a 'h' between the 'w' and the 'a', thus turning the sons and daughters of the Red Dragon into cetacean mammals. Not even William Marshal dared to go that far.

Amidst so much green, it shouldn't come as a surprise that walking was one of our favourite activities and a couple of days before returning to London my wife and I decided to go for a walk around Penbryn Beach. To say that it was exhausting would be an understatement. But, whatever we invested in sweat and energy, was recouped in views. Unspoilt coastal spots, deserted beaches and secluded coves were just some of the amazing sights to which we were treated. And in the middle of it all, the smell coming from the sea. The soft waft caressing my nostrils, my hair salsa-ing with the breeze. The incredible feeling of being free and together with nature. The grandeur of the cliff-tops, and the extensive open vistas. And in my mind two words that conjured up the Welsh experience for me: aroma and a handshake.

© 2010

All photos taken by the blog author

Next Post: 'Of Literature and Other Abstract Thougths', to be published on 14th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Los Amantes del Círculo Polar/The Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Review)

Destiny and chance play a big part in our lives, even if those of a more realistic and pragmatic disposition, like me, would claim that most of the time we shape our own fate. Still, there's always space for what-ifs scenarios and that's exactly what Basque director Julio Medem had in mind when he made 'Los Amantes del Círculo Polar' ('The Lovers of the Arctic Circle')

Otto and Ana are two children in the same school who end up sharing more than an educational institution. Their names are palindromes and after Otto's parents separate, his father begins a relationship with Ana's mother. Thus, Otto and Ana's paths are brought together by fate. Fortuity is also present when their childhood friendship becomes adolescence romance. But since they have grown up together like brother and sister, their relationship has to be kept secret. Finally, after cheating on him for a long time with a colleague at work, Ana's mother leaves Otto's father. This causes a rift between the latter and his son. Otto flees home and later becomes a pilot. Ana moves to Lapland, within the Arctic Circle, where she can watch the midnight sun she had often discussed with Otto when they were children. Otto, meanwhile, on finding out Ana's whereabouts, flies to Lapland to meet her.

'Los Amantes del Círculo Polar' deals with themes already explored by other Medem's vehicles. On this blog we've had 'Vacas' and very soon I will be writing about 'Lucía y el Sexo' ('Sex and Lucia'). In 'Los Amantes del Círculo Polar', the chances one encounters in life and how to take full advantage of them, love, death and destiny are recurring themes.

As befits the title, the action is circular. Ana sees the spectre of his dead father when she first lays eyes on Otto. Otto looks for Ana years after he's left home. One of the better moments in the film is when Otto, still unlucky in his search, sits in a public square behind Ana, as she considers breaking up with her current boyfriend. Of such fleeting instants is real life made. It's no coincidence (or maybe it is?) that Ana's life ends under the wheels of a coach. Under a vehicle with four circular frames.

As a director, Medem has always enjoyed good performances from his leads and supporting cast. 'Los Amantes del Círculo Polar' continues in the same tradition with Najwa Nimri and Fele Martínez excelling in their roles as young Ana and Otto respectively. Nancho Novo, who had already worked with Medem before in 'La Ardilla Roja' ('The Red Squirrel'), is excellent playing the father. Maru Valdivielso completes the quartet with a great turn as the mother.

Julio Medem's fourth feature film tells a good story based on the what-ifs life throws at us. It is another visual gem from the Basque director which I recommend to all cinema lovers.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be posted on Sunday 12th September at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Killer Opening Songs ('Break On Through [To the Other Side] by The Doors

Here's a thought. The Doors should never have worked out. The reason is simple:a flamenco guitarist, a jazz drummer and a classical music-educated pianist. And a wild frontman, Killer Opening Songs forgot that one. Rather than being a barrier for opening and closing an entranceway, the band should have been synonymous with total lack of organization or order, that is, chaos.

Instead, though, The Doors transformed music and became one of the most innovative pop groups ever. And it was their self-titled opera prima 'The Doors' that opened the floodgates of their creativity. Two songs stood out from the word go and they were 'Light My Fire' and 'The End'. The former, not just because of its quality, but also because of the famous Ed Sullivan episode, where lead singer, Jim Morrison, agreed to drop the line 'girl, we couldn't get much higher' from their live performance, yet changed his mind at the last minute. The Doors were never asked to come back. 'The End' is classic performance poetry. Throughout the years the song has been subjected to different interpretations and there's even been the suggestion of infatuation on the part of young Jim for his mother.

The track on which K.O.S. would rather concentrate tonight is the album's opener: 'Break On Through (To the Other Side)'. Not warmly received on its release (despite being the first single from the record), it became a concert staple pretty quickly. Its relentless energy is intoxicating and the synergy of the four disparate elements K.O.S. mentioned before gives the song its unique appeal. Ray Manzarek's entrance is catchy and funky, John Densmore's drumming is moderate and kept in check. Then, almost at the same time as Robby Krieger's guitar kicks in, Jim's voice makes its presence known. Controversy ensued over the line 'she gets high' (funny enough, it was kept in the video). When the single was released the line was changed to 'she gets/she gets' with Morrison wailing his lungs off afterwards. The clip, though primitive (this is well before Queen's innovative 'Bohemian Rhapsody' video), highlights the prowess of this band whose endurance and quality has outlived its existence - later reunions notwithstanding. And it was this Killer Opening Song that 'opened the door' to the work of one of the most fantastic and experimental rock groups ever.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Los Amantes del Círculo Polar/The Lovers of the Arctic Circle' (Review), to be posted on Thursday 9th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Greatest Hits - Track 12

I wonder if Germaine Greer ever read my response to her feature on Bob Dylan. But in case you, my dear reader/blogger, missed it the first time around, here it is again. I've returned now from my holidays and it's good to re-post a Killer Opening Song when that'll be precisely my first column next week now I'm back on the saddle. Read you soon.

Open letter to Ms Germaine Greer from Killer Opening Songs:

Dear Germaine,

For a long time now I have followed your writing avidly, especially your regular column in The Guardian newspaper every other Monday. Your insight into arts and literature is fascinating and thought-provoking. Your book '
The Female Eunuch' is currently sitting on my bookshelf and it won't be long before it and I become a temporary item, wandering around the streets of London arm in arm, metaphorically speaking. I even felt sorry for you the other night when you cameoed on 'Have I Got News For You', the BBC's flagship political satire programme, because of the rough time, I believe, you were given by your (male) counterparts.

As a critic, you speak your mind and you do it, usually, in a coherent and intelligent way. That's why I was so surprised to find your recent feature on Bob Dylan so lackadaisical and ill-informed.

Please, note that I am not questioning your right to like or dislike Bob's music. What I am bringing to the fore, rather, is the futility of the arguments you used in order to back up your theory.

First one in line has to be your certainty (or belief) that Dylan 'thought that rhyme equalled reason'. I disagree on all counts. The example you give, 'Visions of Johanna' is a chronicle in musical form, rather than an attempt to pair up words that rhyme. How's this for an intro?

Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet?/We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it/And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin' you to defy it/Lights flicker from the opposite loft/In this room the heat pipes just cough/The country music station plays soft/But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off/Just Louise and her lover so entwined/And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind.

Secondly, it seems to me that your aversion to Bob's music stems rather from the fact that he kept his fans 'waiting at the Isle of Wight festival in 1969 for three hours, from 9 o'clock till midnight, before he would sing a word'. Notice the use of the possessive pronoun 'his'. You were not amongst those fans, so this is really 'animus by proxy'.

You also aver that Dylan's texts cannot be considered verse, not even doggerel. You then go on to assert that his prose makes no sense. But then you compare him to Morrissey, he of The Smiths, towards the end of your article. To me that's a contradiction. Although, I am not a The Smiths person, even I cannot fail to notice the long tradition of good story-telling that both Dylan and Morrissey draw from. How else to explain the obvious and in-your-face pessimism underpinning 'Heaven Knows I am Miserable Now'?

What she asked of me at the end of the day/Caligula would have blushed/"You've been in the house too long" she said/And I (naturally) fled. By the way, does it make any sense, Germaine?

You then compare Dylan to that stalwart of the Romantic period, William Blake. Just to be on the safe side, Ms Greer, Blake's works were at first considered to be the works of a madman. It was only years after he died that his poetry and painting acquired the high status they rightly deserved. Dylan, too, suffered misunderstanding when he began his career on account of his early compositions. Not everyone 'got' him. I have no idea why you had to dig out Blake's 'The Sick Rose' from his 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' to put one over the American troubadour. Your analysis of the fragment quoted is flawless, but it adds nothing new to your argument because one is verse and the other one is a song (Visions of Johanna). As to the difference between lyrics and words, which seems to me to be you main gripe, the online dictionary I normally default to, defines a lyric as having the form and musical quality of a song, and esp. the character of a songlike outpouring of the poet's own thoughts and feelings, as distinguished from epic and dramatic poetry. So, song, first, lyric after. And therein lies the importance of both poet and troubadour. Their works are usually short, romantic (broadly speaking) and, if possible, humorous. Pope knew it, so did Shakespeare. Facetiousness is present throughout Dylan's oeuvre, as well as in other modern poets/singer-songwriters' work. Listen to
Ursula Rucker and you will hear sarcasm mixed with pain. This is not poetry/music for the faint-hearted. Listen to Dylan's 'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' and the line 'But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked' provokes both mirth and pensiveness.

Further on in your feature you attempt to explain the differences between a singer-songwriter and a poet's creative process by pointing out how the former 'transforms his words in the way he writes the music and the way he sings his song' whereas the latter encapsulates this whole process in silence. What a lot of balderdash! To partially quote you, Ms Greer, 'fustian of this ilk' is what makes my blood boil. Poets also carry a musical voice inside. They might not use it in the same way a singer-songwriter does, but, believe you me, their poems have an innate musicality.

Lastly, these are your very own words in regards to the difference between lyrics and words of a song: 'The other aspect of a lyric is its mystery. A lyric does not explain itself, nor does it tell a story, except by implication(...)When Morrissey sings a Morrissey song, he knows exactly what colour every part of every word is meant to be(...)the music catapults the repetition towards us like a javelin. The music does what the words alone cannot do. To present the words without the music is to emasculate them.


You can still present the words without the music sometimes and they would still be considered lyrics. Two examples come to mind and both of them include repetition as a means to provoke a reaction in the listener. One is 'The Mercy Seat' by Nick Cave which includes the lines: 'They are sick breath at my hind/They are sick breath at my hind/They are sick breath at my hind/They are sick breath gathering at my hind' (notice that 'gathering' in the last line, a clever, little device from Nick, playing a mind game on the listener). The other example is Maya Angelou's anthemic poem 'Still I Rise' which contains the following verses: 'You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I'll rise(...)Just like moons and like suns/With the certainty of tides/Just like hopes springing high/Still I'll rise.

As for Bob Dylan, the American poet, singer-songwriter who is visiting the Killer Opening Songs lounge this week, I think it would be more fitting to allow his most powerful and inspiring K.O.S. ever to do the talk for him. And believe me, Germaine, there're no hard feelings from me to you whatsoever. Enjoy.

For earlier editions of Killer Opening Songs click on any of the links below

Killer Opening Songs (D'Angelo's Brown Sugar)
Killer Opening Songs (Sinéad O'Connor's 'Fire on Babylon')
Killer Opening Songs (Queen's Mustapha)
Killer Opening Songs (Caetano Veloso-Haiti)
Killer Opening Songs (David Bowie - Unwashed and S...
Killer Opening Songs (Massive Attack - Safe From H...
Killer Opening Songs (Bob Brozman)
Killer Opening Songs (Vanessa da Mata - Vermelho)
Killer Opening Songs (The Beatles-Help!)
Killer Opening Songs (Souad Massi-Raoui)
Killer Opening Songs (Habib Koité - Batoumambé)
Killer Opening Songs (Mary Black - No Frontiers)
Killer Opening Songs (Chico Buarque & Milton Nasci...
Killer Opening Songs (David Gilmour - Shine On You...
Killer Opening Songs (Ernesto Lecuona - 'La Compar...
Killer Opening Songs (Chopin 'Fantaisie-Impromptu ...
Killer Opening Songs (He Loves Me by Jill Scott)
Killer Opening Songs (Tracy Chapman - Talkin' 'bout A Revolution)
Killer Opening Songs (Patti Smith - Gloria)
Killer Opening Song (Silvio Rodriguez - Canción del Elegido)
Killer Opening Songs (Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit)
Killer Opening Songs (Fela Kuti and Jethro Tull - Jam Session)

© 2008

Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs', to be published on Tuesday 7th September at 11:59pm (GMT)


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