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Friday, March 30, 2007

Them Was Rotten Days

A memory of a school RE trip to the Isle of Iona. Drinking in the sleeper booth, shouting the words to The Smiths 'London' out of the window, high on anarchy. Fey anarchy at that.

Years later, climbing Mt Fuji in Japan, I wore my Queen is Dead tee. It seemed a fitting choice to take things that high up. Derek Jarman inspired images on volcanic rock, a far cry from the moors and the fountain. The title track of the album is a beat-up, scuffed-up, exquisite and painful anarchy. Punk is dead boys, and it's so lonely on a limb.

I listened to it on the train home tonight, night slamming onto the windows. People in the carriage turned to dust, obliterated by the sexiest drum anguish The Smiths offered.

Her very Lowness with a head in a sling
I'm truly sorry - but it sounds like a wonderful thing

Stephen, you haven't changed, and neither has the world.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Home Redefines

Gosh, hisashiburi.

Writing is of the essence. I feel that words are tired and jaded recently. They need re-inventing. Dylan Thomas summed it up, succintly as always:

"Somebody's boring me. I think it's me."

Self-expression without recycling or boredom, is an art form. It requires real thought, real effort. Effortless portrayal? Does this exist? Mere rhetoric. I want to write beauty and wrestle it onto the page. I want the words to express the exact nuance and shade.

"I hold a beast, an angel and a madman in me, and my enquiry is as to their working, and my problem is their subjugation and victory, downthrow and upheaval, and my effort is their self-expression."

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Literary sofa dust: 60's London covers you with an unsettling film.

Who stole January? Is it laying slumped in a sack, all wrung out? Or is it half-finished, languishing on a bookshelf somewhere?

It seems fitting that my January was lost in bedsit London. London with NHS waiting lists, peeling wallpaper, sexual uncertainty and a certain junk-shop mustiness.

There are always books that you know you should read. 'The Millstone' by Margaret Drabble was one of those. I started the year by reading it. As I read on, a ball of images from novels by Angela Carter, John Fowles and A.S. Byatt, gathered momentum in my head. They share a tone. A dusty, tawdry, unsettling tone. The era about which they write, has echoes of those hip and swinging images of Dylan in a London taxi, but is much sadder and more down-at-heel. Less this:

Than this:

I have always loved Gibert and George's photo montages of a London filthy, and curling up at the edges. Many novels seem to echo this. Drabble's exhalted masterpiece of a young woman who finds herself pregnant, is driven by a narrative of interior spaces. The scenes pass muddily through pubs, pavements, small flats, doctor's surgeries, buses and the off license. It is devoid of the experimentalism of Dead Babies or The Magus. Yet, it is ahead of its time; and the London in the novel, populated by tired, impoverished mothers, immigrants, writers and absent parents, feels not so distant. Shockingly, not terribly much has changed. Class lives on. The NHS is nowhere near coping. Marriage is still a yardstick by which success and normalcy are measured. And, we are surrounded by the damp, grey weather, which has not completely disappeared in our global warming halo.

I find the fetid, mixed-up characters in so much of British literature in the 60s oddly comforting. Outside and inside are connected through a strange, morbid innocence. An example of which can be found in the use of moonlight on skin in Carter's novels. Television so often tells us that the 60s were knowing and, behind a facade of innocence, people were actually enlightened. The innocence and vulnerability in the (predominantly female) characters in works by the aforementioned authors, has a depressing quality. They inhabit the weakness of a crumbling bedsit or a water-logged newspaper. They are their surroundings.

"He became as silent and decorative as the statue with which she always compared him, while their home rotted around them, suffused with purgatorial gloom."

"She lay in bed for hours, while Lee was at work, sometimes drawing her pet apocalyptic beasts in her sketchbook but, more and more, merely gazing into space, absorbed in thought. The window remained boarded up and the room was always dark and shady."

"They moved disinterestedly in the floating world centred loosely upon the art school, the university and the second-hand trade and made their impermanent homes in the sloping, terraced hillside where the Irish, the West Indians and the more adventurous of the students lived in old, decaying houses where rents were low."

All taken from Angela Carter's 'Love'.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Favourite Cake Flavour?

The immense fun of making lists. I have notebooks full of them. End of year lists, though, I find quite difficult. It is hard to sum up a whole year, and I often forget things. Films of 2006..........?

I am constantly bemoaning the fact that films take forever to come to Japan. Well, other than American blockbusters that is. Thus films I wanted to see have not even been advertised yet, and films that I did get to see, often weren't made in 2006. However, it is when I saw them that is important.

It was a somewhat predictable media circus at the Oscars this year. How daring to vote for films which deal with issues of homosexuality or transgender. For god's sake. While Brokeback Mountain and TransAmerica were both great films (the latter a little too happy and simple for my liking), it was a film by Lisset Barcellos that has remained in my mind. An indie flick called Both, which I saw at the Kansai Queer Film Festival in Osaka, dealt with issues of sexual identity specifically experienced by the director.

A bisexual stuntwoman finds out that there is a lot more to her disatisfaction than she could have realised. A search for a dead brother reveals her 'true' identity.
The film illustrates the complexity of Intersexuality, a 'disease' where patients showing both female and male attributes, are often operated on without consent, before they are old enough to have developed as an autonomous being. 'Both' deals with themes of invasion, confusion, silence and shame. It is honest and shocking.

Of this year's films, I have especially enjoyed The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Capote, The Constant Gardener, Little Miss Sunshine,Children of Men and Letters from Iwojima. But my favourite film, was one that I saw on DVD a long time after the original release (see above complaint!!!!). The Assassination of Richard Nixon was by far the best thing I saw this year.

The issues it presented, in the fate of its socially aware protagonist, were very topical and poignant.I was with him all the way, well almost! Sean Penn was fantastic, a 70's De Niro, fallible, despairing and angry. Fantastic. But, perhaps the most wonderful stroke lay in its understatement.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Death Records - Swan, he'd only just begun.

"I am in the midst of a society that is very capitalist, and whose values I completely reject. But I, too, become a capitalist. The problem is that by even dealing with the devil, you become devilish to a certain extent. You need the machine. And once you use it, you are a tainted human being." - Brian De Palma*

Phantom of the Paradise is the rock musical for those who hate musicals. Not only is it directed by Brian de Palma (when he was good), but it builds on imagery from Faust, Dorian Gray, and any number of tales of the monstrous outsider.

Winslow Leach is the hard-done by musical genius, whose rock-opera 'Faust' is stolen by the Machiavellian record producer 'Swan' (played by Paul Williams). Leach is framed by Swan, spends a short-term in prison, loses his teeth and his voice (in an accident with a record press) and endures a fight which leaves his face severely disfigured. If that were not enough, Swan also steals the girl who Winslow is in love with; incidently, the same girl who sings the lead in the purloined opera. Swan is the devil, he will sell any shred of decency for money, success and the girl he wants.

The camp monstrosity and glam silliness is fabulous. The agony of the tragic Winslow Leach makes Thomas Hardy look like a comic genius. This is a fabulous film, a cult, a legend, a musical with the best characters ever.

I forgive Paul Williams for writing 'We've only Just Begun' for The Carpenters, based soley on the strength of his role at the helm of Death Records in this film. The soundtrack which he wrote is also hugely fun. It suprised me to learn that his most recent musical endeavour was to co-write some of the material on the Scissor Sisters 'Ta-Dah'.

Phantom of the Paradise is a must see. It is laughable for the right reasons. Hurrah for nasty record executives with awesome 70s hair. May Death Records always be cult listening!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Singers as Actors. The emerging voice: From Adolescent Sex to Tin Drum

It still amazes me that Japan only recorded five studio albums together. Their discography winks at us from over 25 years ago. It is a stunning collection of songs; songs which become more unique and atmospheric through each album. But, perhaps the most striking thing about these five records is the change in Sylvian's voice, from Glam Rock Bowie to the smooth baritone of Ghosts.

I have a fondness for 'Adolescent Sex' their debut album ('78), which Sylvian often disparaged, saying that 'Obscure Alternatives'(also '78) should have been their debut. Sylvian on Adolescent Sex, is often much maligned for sounding too similar to Bowie or Ferry. The record is catalogued as 'New Romantic',but Sylvian's voice rips through high notes and glams up cadences with rock-like abandon. I love this record. Songs like Transmission, Adolescent Sex and Television, have a groove, a playfulness and a sheer power that make you want to dance. There are oft experimental keyboards and funked-up bass. However, the band and the music press were not avid fans.

Obscure Alternatives still has a lot of the former record in its style, but shows the beginnings of the baritone that was to symbolise the band. Japan at this point, shift in record catalogues from New Romantic, to Post-Punk/New Wave. All in the space of a year. Who decides?

1980 brought the release of Gentlemen Take Polaroids, with the fantastic Swing, Nightporter and title track. The band's collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto started here, and the artwork of the record covers matched the somber beauty of Sylvian's grown-up croon.

Still, it is Tin Drum for which the band is most remembered. This album gave the band its biggest hit, with haunting songs like Ghosts and Still Life in Mobile Homes (a title which for me, couples with Roxy's In Every Dream Home a Heartache.)

There is a wealth of post-Japan solo project material, and further collaborations with Japanese artists. I don't want to catalogue Sylvian's career, but it astounds me that in the space of five albums, his voice could have changed so drastically.

Actors change their accents frequently to adopt someone else's persona; it cannot be dissimilar. Artists often grow into their voices, and become stronger or more versatile. But the leap from Adolescent Sex to Gentlemen Take Polaroids is quite something. Is singing more cerebral than I thought? Can vocal chords bend at the artist's will? Just look at Ewan McGreggor singing Iggy. He did a pretty believable job. The voice is an instrument which can be tuned to an attitude or a style. The important thing being, once you have found the perfect style, not to waver.

While I love Japan for its very unique sound, there will always be a huge place in my heart reserved for its debut record. While experimenting with what they wanted to be, they created the perfect New Wave, Glam Rock, New Romantic romp imaginable.

Have a look here for photos from the Japan era.

Friday, November 24, 2006

I heart Beatniks

I was stopped at the traffic lights the other day, when the coolest couple crossed the road. They must have been in their 50s, and they were all dressed in black, with matching sunglasses and blunt-cut fringes. Beatniks!

Of all the styles out there to be worshipped, adored and emulated, I was desirous of the whole Beatnik look. This probably stems from my first viewing of John Waters' film 'Hairspray'. The Beatniks were fabulous and they even outdid Debbie Harry, to be the best thing in the film. All black skinny clothes, smudged-kohl,and laid-back attitude, they were divine. I especially loved that the girls ironed their perfect locks.

How was I to know back then, that they were just a marketed stereotype? How was I to know that there really weren't any self-confessed Beatniks as such?

For those who are interested, the term was coined by a San Franscisco journalist named Herb Caen in 1958. The work 'Beatnik' was comprised of 'Beat' taken from 'Beat Generation' and 'nik' from the Russian sputnik. Caen had used the term to highlight a group of people who he deemed to be anti-American (hence the catch-all nod to Russia/Communism). Soon cartoons depicting 'hip','cool cats',and their un-patriotic lifestyle, were all over the place.

Any counter-culture, be it punk or animal rights, is soon seized upon and its followers stereotyped and misread. The Beat Generation were absolutely anti-establishment, but they were certainly not Communist, their dabbling in spirituality shows us that for one thing.

Writers such as Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs definitely had a style, one that ran contrary to the so-called mainstream culture. In an era which was seen to be quite conservative and uptight, they were unsung heroes of liberalism. It could even be said that they heralded Dylan and the hippie movement.

But not all lovers of Beat Poetry were Beatniks. Beatniks didn't really exist did they. Instead, a group of people existed, a 'Beat' generation who could be summed up in the following words:

It was animated more by a vague feeling of cultural and emotional displacement, dissatisfaction and yearning, than by a specific purpose or program.

Still, I like to think of Beatniks walled-up in seedy little joints, smoking reefers, tapping their feet to jazz and reading poetry. Maybe tomorrow I'll go out dressed all in black, a book of Ginsberg poems tucked under my arm, a lick of heavy eyeliner, and a swing of my freshly ironed hair. Whatever the roots, the image source; we could all do with a little more counter-culture in our lives.

Long live those cool cats!