Elbow live in Liverpool: Everyone’s here

Elbow live in Liverpool: Everyone’s here

Guy Garvey

To someone who grew up when the hit parade and radio playlists were experienced in common by everyone, the fragmentation of the music scene in recent decades can seem depressing. Music is no longer something enjoyed in common: instead, jostled next to each other on bus or tube but sealed inside our headphones we listen to our own music, and rarely  is someone heard singing on the street.

Which is why seeing Elbow live at the Arena in Liverpool on Thursday was such a treat.  The thousands gathered in the Arena spanned the generations – I was  there with my daughter who, though we have our distinct musical tastes, loves some of the music my generation has passed to hers, and shares a passion for Elbow. More than that, though, is the fact that Elbow frontman Guy Garvey is on a mission: in the songs he writes, and at the shows, he draws us in to share feelings of lost friends and lost times, but also to celebrate the things that make life good – and to sing.

In a profile written for The Guardian, Dave Simpson quoted Pete Jobson of Manchester band I Am Kloot, who has known Garvey for 15 years:

When he performs he’s always asking, ‘Is everybody OK?’ He’s genuinely concerned. He realises the emotional weight of what he is singing about so he’ll lighten it up with a joke. He can tell stories all night but he has real reason for what he does. He’s on the side of the good: community, family values. He sings about what he needs to sing about. It’s courageous, heart-on-your-sleeve stuff.

In less than 15 minutes at the Arena, Guy Garvey had ten thousand people in the palm of his hand.  He only has to say ‘hands’ and everyone has their arms raised, hands waving.  He chats and banters with the huge crowd – as intimate and affable as the guy standing next to you at the bar. It’s as if he regards any member of the audience as someone with whom it might be worth spending a little time, sharing a joke or an anecdote. (A friend tells me that, two night earlier at the Philharmonic, Van Morrison said barely a word all night, and walked off stage at the end of his show without a word and so abruptly that even the members of his band seemed nonplussed.)

Elbow

Elbow’s transformation into perhaps the most widely loved British band must be surprising even to its five members. First performing together in 1990 at The Corner Pin pub near Ramsbottom in Greater Manchester, they played for eleven years before they even made an album. Strikingly, they are still the same five guys: lead vocalist and lyricist Guy Garvey, guitarist Mark Potter, keyboardist Craig Potter, bassist Pete Turner and drummer Richard Jupp.  It wasn’t until 2008 with the release of their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, that they got their big breakthrough.  Sales of The Seldom Seen Kid and its follow-up Build A Rocket Boys! soared after their performance at this year’s Olympic closing ceremony.

On this tour – billed as a farewell to fans before the band take a break from live performances for a year to spend time with their families and record a new album – the five members of the band are augmented by a string quartet and a brass section (Elle Bow and We Blow, joked Garvey).

They open with ‘High Ideals’ with its theme of middle-aged retreat from the certainties and enticements of youth, before launching into ‘The Bones of You’, a testament to the power of music and memory:

So I’m there
Charging around with a juggernaut brow
Overdraft, speeches and deadlines to make
Cramming commitments like cats in a sack
Telephone burn and a purposeful gait

When out of a doorway the tentacles stretch
Of a song that I know
And the world moves in slow-mo
Straight to my head
like the first cigarette of the day

And it’s you, and it’s May
And we’re sleeping through the day
And I’m five years ago
And three thousand miles away

Do I have time? A man of my calibre
Stood in the street like a sleepwalking teenager
No.
And I dealt with this years ago
I took a hammer to every memento
But image on image like beads on a rosary
pulled through my head as the music takes hold
and the sickener hits; I can work till I break
but I love the bones of you
That, I will never escape

Memory is central to the lyrics that Garvey writes for Elbow.  One of seven kids from a working-class family, he grew up in Bury, Greater Manchester.  A review of the last Elbow record Build a Rocket Boys! on the NorthernLine website said this:

Guy Garvey … comes back here from time to time. ‘Here’ being his memories of days gone by. Usually days of childhood. Days of love, loss, betrayal, bullying, heartache, bruised shins, skinned knees… he shelters amongst the angst, evoking our own memories of a time when life was simpler, less hurried, slightly more brutal, but, never-the-less somewhere that we return to again and again, in our hearts and minds. …

When he’s singing, Garvey is soulful and emotional; between songs he is a wisecracking, self-effacing all-round ordinary bloke. His manager says he sees the good in everybody. Just as he’s about to launch into the next song, someone  yells, ‘I’ve got a tattoo’ and Guy pauses to check it out, learn the guy’s name and why the tattoo is special, before turning back to the stage saying, ‘Give us a squeeze’.

Elbow performing at The Liverpool Echo Arena 29th November 2012

The next song turns out to be a rare outing for ‘Grace Under Pressure’, a miniature from 2003’s Cast of Thousands.  Garvey once had the Glastonbury crowd singing it’s closing line over and over.  It never made it to the BBC broadcast:

Grace under pressure
Cooling palm across my brow
Eyes of an angel
Lay me down
We still believe in love, so fuck you

When that’s over, Garvey asks us to face the stage, raise our arms, wiggle our fingers and shout ‘twinkle’.  It’s at this point that the white curtain that arched the stage dissolves and a dazzling lightshow leads, appropriately into ‘Mirrorball’, another unabashed hymn to the power of love:

You make the moon our mirrorball
The streets an empty stage
The city’s sirens, violins
Everything has changed

So lift off love
All down to you, dear
And lift off love
All down to you, dear

Then we get to hear a new song,’ Charge’ that Garvey says will be on the next album, but by that time may sound different. It is, he said in an interview for BBC Radio 6, ‘about an old guy in a bar full of young people. He’s talking bitterly to the kids around him.  He reminds them that his generation designed the music they listen to, and fought for the laws that protect their freedoms’.

These fuckers are ignoring me:
I’m from another century.
These fuckers are ignoring me:
They’ll never learn from history…

It sounded like another powerful Elbow classic. Fittingly, ‘Leaders of the Free World’ followed, with its lyric:

The leaders of the free world
Are just little boys throwing stones
And it’s easy to ignore
Till they’re knocking on the door of your homes

My thinking isn’t driven
But the music always gives me a lift
I’m so easy to please, yeah
But I think we dropped the baton:
Like the 60’s didn’t happen.

Passing the gun from father to feckless son
We’re climbing a landslide where only the good die young
Passing the gun from father to feckless son
We’re climbing a landslide where only the good die young

‘Grounds for Divorce’ began a sequence of songs in which Garvey has worked through the profound effect that the tragic death of a lost friend and fellow-musician, Bryan Glancy, has had on Garvey and the rest of the band.  The Seldom Seen Kid was named for Glancy, and when Elbow won the Mercury Prize for the album Garvey gave an emotional speech dedicating the prize to his memory.

There’s a hole in my neighbourhood down which of late I cannot help but fall
Mondays is for drinking to the seldom seen kid

Elbow at the Arena 2

The symphonic ‘Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver’ followed:

I must have been working the ropes
When your hand slipped from mine
Now I live off the mirrors and smoke
It’s a joke, a fix, a lie
Come on, tower crane driver
Oh so far to fall.
Send up a prayer in my name

And then came one of the most remarkable moments in a remarkable show: Guy and the band assemble at the end of the pier jutting out from the stage into the audience where they perform an a capella version of ‘The Night Will Always Win’.  ‘This is a sad song’, says Guy, ‘but it contains good advice’.   It’s another elegy to a lost friend, and one of Garvey’s most beautiful songs, combining heartfelt sentiment with no-nonsense humour:

I throw this to the wind
But what if I was right
Well, did you trust your noble dreams
And gentle expectations to the mercy of the night?
The night will always win
The night has darkness on its side
I’ll throw this to the wind

I miss your stupid face
I miss your bad advice
I tried to clothe your bones with scratches
Super 8s, exaggerated stories and old tunes

The band remain in the same spot for ‘Weather to Fly’, performed with just a simple guitar accompaniment.  It’s a song about the streets that nurtured the members of the band:

Pounding the streets where my fathers feet still
ring from the walls,
we’d sing in the doorways,
or bicker and row
just figuring how we were wired inside
Perfect weather to fly.

Midway through the song, Garvey pauses after singing the line, ‘Are we having the time of our lives?’ He says, ‘When we recorded this song, I never expected that I’d be singing that line falsetto and unaccompanied.  Is there anyone here who thinks they can do better?’ All around him hands are raised.  He picks Nina who has nominated Nathan.  Three times Guy coaxes a creditable falsetto from Nathan and then tries for one from Nina.  She’s having none of it.  But before he  returns to the stage Garvey finds time to pose for a photo with the couple.

Elbow at the Arena 4

‘Fugitive Motel’ is another beautiful song, introduced as one ‘for those separated from someone they love’:

I blow you a kiss
It should reach you tomorrow
As it flies from the other side of the world
From my room in my fugitive motel
Somewhere in the dust bowl
It flies from the other side of the world

It’s friendship again with ‘Puncture Repair’, a song that Garvey once explained as being simply about a friend being there for him when he needed him:

I leaned on you today
I regularly hurt but never say
You patched me up and sent me on my way
I leaned on you today

Elbow performing at The Liverpool Echo Arena 29th November 2012

A distinctive feature of many of the tracks on Build a Rocket Boys! is Craig Potter’s minimalist keyboards, with songs often being carried on a single piano note. That single, repeated note introduced ‘Lippy Kids’, another of Garvey’s miniature sketches of northern urban life, a yearning and poignant recollection of youth.  In ‘Lippy Kids’, Garvey sees lads ‘settling like crows’ at the corner.  It’s an image that reminds that he is a keen birdwatcher:

Lippy kids on the corner again
Lippy kids on the corner begin settling like crows
Though I never perfected that simian stroll
But the cigarette senate, it was everything then Do they know those days are golden?
Build a rocket boys!
Build a rocket boys! One long June I came down from the trees
And curbstone cool
You were freshly painted angel walking on walls
Stealing booze and hour-long hungry kisses

Garvey has said that ‘Lippy Kids’ was written as a defence of teenagers, a rejection of ‘the anti-hoody shit that goes on in the media, the thought that if you hang around on a street corner you’re a criminal. It’s quite a nostalgic thing. I’ve got a thing about growing up. I remember it being an amazing important time, so I’ve written a lot about that.’

Elbow at the Arena 1
At the close of the song, as if struck by the sheer wonderfulness of the situation, Garvey observes, ‘The reason we all enjoy getting together this way because we’re all so fucking cool’.  The band then launch into a thunderous rendition of ‘The Birds’, the middle eight, ‘What are we going to do with you’, a surging wall of sound, less delicate than the meditative version on the album:
What are we gonna do with you
Same tale every time
What are we gonna do with you
Come on inside
Looking back is for the birds

In the song an old man remembers a love affair long ago. In the middle eight we hear the voices of his carers saying: ‘What we going to do with you, come on inside, looking back is for the birds.’ Garvey has said he tried to capture the patronising way in which old people are often spoken to. ‘I suppose I’m saying it’s wrong to patronise old people and assume they haven’t felt everything that you’ve felt and remember it very clearly’.

In a lengthy piece for The Observer, Luke Bainbridge observed that:

Lyrically, Garvey tackles the bigger themes in life – love and loss, relationships and friendships, ambition and failure – but where most songwriters mine obvious seams, plucking the same basic chords on the public’s heartstrings, Garvey explores the minor notes. His lyrics poke around in grey areas, explore complex themes and overlooked emotions, and – key to Elbow’s appeal – champion the everyday.

Elbow at the Arena 3

And so we arrive at the finale, the life-affirming ‘Open Arms’ which celebrates St Bernadette’s social centre in Whitefield, north Manchester, heart of the community that nurtured Garvey and the rest of Elbow.  This is the place where his family, friends and neighbours have gathered for christenings, weddings and funerals, a place of  ‘finger rolls and folding chairs and a volley of streamers’.  It’s a place to which prodigal sons and daughters return for ‘tweaks and repairs’; it’s a place to get pissed.

The band sing, and we sing, ‘We’ve got open arms, for broken hearts’. We sing of home, community and continuity: ‘Everyone’s here’.  This is what defines an Elbow show: the inimitable Garvey-led community singing. For Garvey, you sense, the main purpose of these shows is that he should not be the only one who sings: that songs sung together are good medicine. ‘Come home again’, sing the massed voices of Liverpudlians urged on by a jovial Mancunian.

Back for the encore, the band open with ‘Starlings’, strange for the way in which the tender lyrics are scythed by blasts of brass.  After that, Garvey urges us all on the way out to fill the buckets of collectors for MAG (Mines Advisory Group),the Manchester-based charity responsible for clearing war zones of mines and munitions world wide of which Elbow are patrons.

Then – what else but the inevitable ‘One Day Like This’, the anthem that everyone who hears it takes to their hearts.  Garvey orchestrates the community singing so effectively that halfway through the band drop out, leaving the audience to sing their hearts out unaccompanied. Reviewing the concert the next day, the Liverpool Echo observed:

An evening spent at an Elbow gig should be on NHS prescription, so much better does it make you feel about, well, everything.  Two hours in their feel good company last night and the audience emerged into the frosty night energised and with a general feeling that everything was all right with the world….It takes something for any band to make an arena performance feel intimate but Elbow succeeded. That was thanks to Garvey and his easy banter with the crowd. … Part drinking buddy, part big brother he is the emotional heart of both the band and the gig.

As he left the stage, Garvey broke into an impromptu ‘All You Need Is Love’.  The crowd responded instantly, and though Guy had left they sang on:

All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need.

And so, in the Echo’s words, we emerged into the frosty night energised and with a feeling that everything was all right with the world.  The Belfast boat, lit up, was just leaving on the river.  The big wheel was a beautiful thing, empty, illuminated and slowly turning.  Somehow, despite the recession and the government’s savage cuts to the city budget, the Christmas street decorations seemed more impressive, more glittery, than ever.

Sarah took photos 4,5,7 and 8.

See also

Thea Gilmore: on tour in New Brighton

Thea Gilmore: on tour in New Brighton


In the Blue Room of New Brighton’s Floral Pavilion Thea Gilmore was explaining how she and partner Nigel Stonier had, for the last five years, organised a literature and music festival in their home town of Nantwich in Cheshire.  ‘Anyone know the material for a fifth anniversary?’ she asked.  One guy suggested bacon.  ‘Er, no…but you can stay at my house anytime’, she responded.  The answer is wood, and wood became the theme for the concert that Thea and her band gave at this year’s festival: every song had to be wood-related, and it fell to Thea to sing an old German folk song made famous by Elvis Presley.

‘Wooden Heart’, sung solo by Thea midway through Sunday night’s show in New Brighton, was just one of the spine-tingling highlights of a superb concert; to hear it was worth the price of admission alone.  She took the song at a slower pace than Elvis and scoured it clean of the jaunty, tripping rhythm of the original, paring it down to the intimate love song that lies at its core:

Can’t you see
I love you
Please don’t break my heart in two
That’s not hard to do
Cause I don’t have a wooden heart

Gilmore is an accomplished vocalist who can belt out a mean rocker or, as here, infuse a romantic ballad with a sensuous intensity.  She did a creditable job of retaining the original German words sung by Elvis a year after he had completed his military service in Germany:

Muß i’ denn, muß i’ denn
Zum Städtele hinaus,
Städtele hinaus
Und du mein Schatz bleibst hier

(Got to go, got to go,
Got to leave this town,
Leave this town
And you, my dear, stay here.)

Earlier, Thea Gilmore had arrived on stage with her band, comprising guitarist, producer and partner Nigel Stonier, Che Beresford on drums, Alan Knowles on acoustic bass and accordion and Tracy Bell on keyboards.  On two numbers the band was augmented, and its average age considerably reduced, when joined onstage by six year-old Egan – Nigel and Thea’s eldest child – who wielded a child-size violin.

Gilmore had kicked off with ‘Contessa’ from 2008’s Harpo’s Ghost, and there were to be a fair few numbers from the extensive Gilmore back catalogue in the course of the evening – for as she informed us, after tours promoting albums of songs by Dylan and Sandy Denny, she was thrilled to be doing what she likes doing best, singing the songs that she writes herself.  She’d thought long and hard about the songs she really wanted to sing, and had dusted off a fair few which have not been performed for years. She’s halfway through recording a new album, due out in the spring, and at the gigs there is very limited edition EP available, called Beginners – because it’s a sort of taster for the main course to follow. She did two numbers off the EP, and one completely new song which may, or may not, be on the next album.

There were no Dylan covers in this show, but there were two of the previously unpublished Sandy Denny songs that Gilmore was commissioned to set to music, which comprised the album Don’t Stop Singing and were featured in the tribute show that toured the country this summer, The Lady: A Homage to Sandy Denny.  Here she featured ‘Don’t Stop Singing’ and the Olympic summer single ‘London’.

Following the pen-portrait of an unwelcome reminder of a dissolute past in ‘Contessa’, we were treated to Thea’s angry and bitter portrayal of political arrogance  in ‘God’s Got Nothing On You’ before she presented a song off the new EP, ‘Beautiful Hopeful’, all about the tribulations that await young musicians entering today’s music business. A little later Thea talked at some length about the process of making an album: always having too many songs, finding that after a while a dozen or so songs seem to chime together, leaving many more to be sadly cast aside. This was by way of an introduction to one of those songs – ‘The Amazing Floating Man’ – that appears on the new EP.  Thea half-apologetically presented the song as being about the banking crisis; it was a solo a capella performance that lifted the hairs on back of your neck:

Roll up, roll up
For the best show in town
See him balance the books
As the markets crash down
And he never does much
But he does what he can
The Amazing Floating Man

By way of complete contrast (and you do get that with Thea – her songbook displays a tremendous variety of mood and material) we were treated us to a lively performance of the raunchy ‘Teach Me To Be Bad’: as she said, a song that ‘celebrates sex and the little devil in all of us’:

If I were coming off the rails
Dropped my eyes and dropped my dress
Would your moral stand prevail
Or would you fold like all the rest
Ooh ain’t we got fun
Ooh let’s come undone
I said one two well hand me a light
Oh three four I don’t wanna be right

By way of contrast, another new song from the EP, ‘Me By Numbers’ carried the refrain:

I can be a good girl
I can be a queen
I can be a soldier
I can be the thinking man’s dream
I can be a warrior
I can be the eye of the world
But  most of all
I can be a good, good girl

Thea Gilmore grew up in Oxfordshire, her interest in music developing from listening to her father’s record collection, which included Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and The Beatles. She began writing poetry at the age of 15 as a way of coping with the divorce of her parents, and got an early start in the music industry, working in a recording studio and recording her first album Burning Dorothy as a teenager in 1998.  In the following four years she released three more albums that earned her a growing critical reputation, but no chart success. It was around this time that I first discovered her songs: I remember listening repeatedly to Rules for Jokers, her third album that had standout tracks such as ‘This Girl Is Taking Bets’ and ‘Things We Never Said’, on the drive to and from work in 2001.

That album also included a song called ‘Inverigo’ that I could never really figure out: it had a lovely melody, but the meaning of some of the lines, and particularly the title, always puzzled me. On Sunday night, introducing the song to the audience in the Blue Lounge, Thea solved the mystery.  She wrote ‘Inverigo’ in Italy, in the town of the same name; she was there with her partner,  Nigel Stonier, who was recording an album.  Though the trip, for her was ‘little more than a jolly’, at the time she needed to convince a record company that she had songs worth backing.  ‘Inverigo’ was written in the company offices, they liked it, and she got a contract.  After the concert, as Thea signed my copy of her new EP, I explained how that title had mystified me for a decade or more. ‘Well, there you go’, she replied, ‘puzzle solved’.

We are running from storms of our youth into more of the same …
We are free as the wind through the trees or so we are told …

In the last 15 years, Thea Gilmore has produced another ten albums, and has established a reputation as one of Britain’s leading songwriters.  Though they can be a little uneven, each of her albums contains at least one gem that ranks alongside the work of the best lyricists.  Joan Baez recognised her worth, picking up on ‘The Lower Road’ from Liejacker, and recording her version of the song on The Day After Tomorrow, and inviting Thea to join her tour.

After she recorded ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ for a Dylan covers CD for Uncut Magazine in 2002, the accolades poured in, including one from Bruce Springsteen who, on encountering Gilmore backstage at a 2008 concert, showed his appreciation for the track, calling it ‘one of the great Dylan covers’. For, alongside her own songwriting credentials, Thea Gilmore is also a gifted interpreter of songs written by others.  Some of these are to be found on Loft Music, an album of cover versions she put out in 2004; it includes wonderful interpretations of songs as varied as Pete Shelley’s ‘Ever Fallen in Love’, John Fogerty’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’, the great Phil Ochs song ‘When I’m Gone’, and ‘Buddy Can You Spare a Dime’.  Other favourites include great versions of Pete Burns’ ‘You Spin Me Round’, Yoko Ono’s ‘Listen The Snow Is Falling’ and Springsteen’s ‘Cover Me’.  And then of course there is her album of songs by Sandy Denny, and her recreation of Bob Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding.

I have my own strong favourites from her own compositions; one that I always hope she will sing live is ‘Old Soul’, and she did not disappoint on this occasion.  When we hear a song it may have a personal meaning that can differ from the writer’s original intent.  I listened to ‘Old Soul’ a long time before I became aware that old souls are those that have experienced several previous incarnations from which they have gained greater wisdom.  On this video clip, Thea introduces the song, talking about how it was written while she was pregnant, and how the lyric’s meaning for her was related to the imminent birth of her child:

To complete an evening of great music, Thea returned for the obligatory encore: a rousing rendition of the apocalyptic call to arms, ‘Are You Ready’, with its chorus ‘We will ride, are you ready? reinforced by blistering accordion, before things quietened down with another new song, a hushed ballad ‘Goodbye My Friend’.

Setlist

  • Contessa
  • Don’t Stop Singing
  • God’s Got Nothing on You
  • Beautiful Hopeful
  • Red White and Black
  • Teach Me To Be Bad
  • The Amazing Floating Man
  • Me By Numbers
  • Old Soul
  • Roll On
  • You’re the Radio
  • Inverigo

Encore:

  • Are You Ready?
  • Goodbye My Friend

See also

The Stones’ Crossfire Hurricane: It’s a Gas! Gas! Gas!

The Stones’ Crossfire Hurricane: It’s a Gas! Gas! Gas!

Last night I attended the red-carpet premiere of the new Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane, at the Odeon Leicester Square. Well, no: I was there in spirit only, actually attending one of these increasingly common events where we sit in a cinema in our home town and experience a live event going on somewhere else.  In this case, the Odeon in Liverpool One screened the London Film Festival premiere of Brett Morgen’s Stones 50th anniversary film to a three-quarters empty cinema.

Preceded by red-carpet interviews with each of the Stones and various other luminaries smooching the crowds on their way into the premiere, Crossfire Hurricane proved to be a brilliantly-edited, visceral documentary that was great fun to watch, but ended up being a bit strange.

These days documentaries are as slick and as finely edited as feature films (I first noticed this watching Charles Ferguson’s fine expose of the banking crash, Inside Job).  Crossfire Hurricane features historical footage, much of it never seen before, skilfully edited without any narration or present-day talking heads interviews (so you need to be pretty familiar with the Stones’ story to keep up).  Continuity is provided by period interviews and recent interviews conducted by Morgen with the Rolling Stones.  A caption at the start informs us that no cameras were allowed during these sessions, so we only hear the Stones recalling their past, sometimes to a black screen.

The director and his team of editors have put together a spellbinding collage of the Stones’ rise to global megastardom, with only the best moments making their way into the two hour film. There have been other documentaries that have explored particular tours or shows (notably the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter, based around the terrifying Altamont festival), but only the BBC film, 25×5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones (which marked the 25th anniversary of the band’s formation), has previously attempted an overview of their career.

Crossfire Hurricane plunges us straight into the early years, with powerful, visceral footage that follows the band from their dressing room in some local Odeon circa 1963, along corridors and out on stage to a barrage of screaming teenage girls.  Everything is chaos.  The uniformed commissioners are out of their depth, and teenagers hurl themselves on stage, dragging Jagger to the floor before the concert is abandoned.  Jagger recalls that the band used to bet how long they’d be able to play for before having to abandon the stage.  Often it was all over in less than 15 minutes.

The film adds nothing new to our knowledge of the band or of their music: Jagger was the executive producer, so how could we expect anything other than a recapitulation of the Stones’ myth: how four blues-obsessed young men became the embodiment of counter-culture darkness and depravity.  This is not to say that the film glosses over the drug busts or the licentious swirl of their lives back then: but this has long been in the public domain.

In fact, speaking today, Jagger recalls how their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, deliberately and provocatively positioned the band as the antithesis of the Beatles’ suited, lads next door niceness. He and Keith Richards note how being bad became a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to the arrest in 1967 of Jagger and Richards on drug charges. Jagger sees how that ‘cemented our relationship with the public’, while Richards, with his usual swagger, reckons: ‘They gave me a licence … That was when we really put the black hat on. Before that it was off-grey’.

The audio-only interviews reinforce the public personas of each band member. Richards, as always, is the bandit and romantic of the group, who says, ‘I didn’t have a problem with drugs…I had a problem with cops’, and talks about fleeing England for fear of the law in the early 1970s.  Jagger’s voice follows immediately: ‘Keith always says he was chased out of England by the cops. He may believe that but it’s not actually true. The band left because of money’.  This was when the band fled to the south of France to escape huge tax bills.  Perhaps mindful of sensibilities in 2012, Jagger adds that they were doing it just to make enough money to pay off the Inland Revenue.

One disappointment of the film is that it barely mentions life before the Stones: their backgrounds or early years on the London jazz club circuit.  Keith Richards drawls how he was simply a ‘blues player’ until this fame thing’ kicked in, while Jagger talks about how he modelled his early stage routine on Little Richard, challenging and goading the audience.

Crossfire Hurricane is most compelling tracing the Rolling Stones’ classic period, from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. This is where the film editing is at its most rivetting, even though the wider political and cultural context is hardly mentioned.  Footage from earlier documentaries (such as Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus and Gimme Shelter) is used effectively.  So just a few clips from Gimme Shelter paint a terrifying picture of Altamont, where a young man was murdered by Hells Angels hired to provide security.  Charlie Watts memorably compares their recruitment as ‘like asking the Nazi party to sort out the front of the auditorium’.

Attention is given to Brian Jones’ contribution to the band – the man who founded the Stiones by recruiting the others, and who had ‘the best bottleneck guitar style in London’ (which we hear in ‘No Expectations’ on the soundtrack as accompaniment to an emotional account of his death.

The music throughout is tremendous, opening with a raw account of ‘Street Fighting Man’, along with remarkable  performances of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ and ‘Midnight Rambler’.  Fired up after their brief period imprisonment following the 1967 drugs bust when Sussex police, tipped off by the News of the World, raided a party at Keith Richards’ home, they record ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’:

I was born in a cross-fire hurricane 
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain, 
But it’s all right now, in fact, it’s a gas! 
But it’s all right.  I’m Jumpin’ Jack Flash, 
It’s a Gas!  Gas!  Gas!

Stones aficionados will gape, though, at the total omission of any reference, musical or otherwise to one of their greatest albums, Exile on Main Street.

Oddly, for a film released to mark 50 years of the group, Crossfire Hurricane treats the Stones’ career as having to all intents and purposes ended at the beginning of the 1980s. Keith Richards’ 1977 arrest for heroin possession in Toronto is the last significant event discussed, and the band members note how this was the period in which they went from being the group everyone hated to the one everyone loved. The last thing we see before the closing credits is footage of the 1981 Still Life tour. In a way, this makes sense: from that point, the Stones became little more than a brand, making huge amounts of money from world tours that promoted increasingly uninspiring albums.

A mesmeric ode to a collection of chain-smoking, substance-abusing rapscallions that took on the law, the establishment and the fragility of their own bodies and minds, whilst living long enough to tell the tale. What better way to celebrate The Stones’ 50th anniversary.
–  Cine Vue review

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Patti Smith in Manchester: spirit in the night

Patti Smith in Manchester: spirit in the night

The rock’n’roll spirit soared and raged last Friday night in Manchester, as if thirty years had not passed and reduced the flame to a flickering ember.  The reason?   One of the few artists left with any credibility from the time when rock and poetry fused was in town, a battered survivor still raising a fist to power, corruption and greed who stirred up a powerful, spiritual, shamanic experience: Patti Smith.

Sauntering on stage in a sweltering O2 Academy, Patti launched straight into every fan’s favourite ‘Dancing Barefoot’, taken at a stately pace. It was soon clear that this was going to be a great night: Patti in top form, as was the band (longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye on guitar, Jay Dee Daugherty Trilby-hatted on drums, Tony Shanahan on bass and keyboards and Jackson Smith on guitar), and the sound balance perfect.

Patti dedicated ‘Redondo Beach’ to Morrissey, ‘who made it his own’.  The song has an incongruously jaunty reggae rhythm for something so sad.  ‘I went looking for you, are you gone, gone ?’ she sang, the words actually a sort of morbid fantasy, written in remorse when she and her sister Linda were living at the Chelsea Hotel.  They had quarrelled, and Linda had disappeared: the song was written as an anguished response.

‘April Fool’ was the first song taken from her new album. It’s one of the prettiest songs on Banga, full of a sense of freedom and a joy in being alive:

We’ll tramp through the mire
When our souls feel dead
With laughter we’ll inspire
Then back to life again

She sang it beautifully, at the close repeating and emphasising the refrain: ‘We’ll break all the rules’.

Three more new songs followed – ‘Fuji San’, ‘Mosaic’ and ‘This Is The Girl’, the sixties-style pop ballad based on a poem she wrote about Amy Winehouse after her death at the age of 27 in July 2011. Smith told Uncut magazine:

The little song for Amy just blossomed in the studio. We were at [New York studio] Electric Lady doing a whole other song and I wrote Amy a little poem when she died and my bass player, Tony Shanahan, wrote a piece of music and the two matched perfectly.”

In Manchester, there was nothing mawkish about Patti’s introduction to the song.  She pointed out that September 14 would be Amy’s birthday – and also that of her husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, who died in 1994, aged 45. ‘It will be a happy day, a day of celebration’, said Patti.

In an interview for Spinner, Patti explained that the purpose of the song was not to glamourise self-destructive behaviour.  She didn’t actually know Winehouse:

I wrote it out of respect for her artistry and her youth.  A lot of people think that because I admire a lot of musicians or artists who did have a self-destructive bent that I romanticize self-destruction. Well, I don’t at all. In Amy Winehouse’s instance, I really admired her as a singer. That girl was amazing. She sang songs from my generation – R&B songs and jazz and doo-wop – with no sixth degree of separation. She really comprehended this music and delivered something extra.

But for myself … I always wanted to be an artist. I was always just enthralled with the possibilities in life: Books and art and music and architecture and travel and love. There’s so much out there. Also, I was a very sickly child. I was sick quite a bit and my mother had to nurse me through everything from tuberculosis to scarlet fever to measles and mumps and influenza. By the time I was a teenager, I was just happy to be alive. I certainly wasn’t going to destroy what my mother spent almost two decades preserving. [So] I never really developed any vices – except coffee! I guess the simplest answer would be, I love life. I’m very grateful to have the imagination that I have, and the children that I have. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.

After this, Patti moved straight into one of her most shamanic songs – ‘Ghost Dance’, with its incantatory refrain, ‘We shall live again’.  This was a powerful performance, with Lenny Kaye contributing vocals on one verse. Patti had also sung ‘Ghost Dance’ in Glasgow two nights earlier: this is a video of her performance there:

Announcing that ‘reality is over – after this show you will return only to semi-reality’, Patti withdrew to leave Lenny Kaye to lead the band through a fiery medley of garage classics that included the Strangeloves’ ‘Night Time’, the Seeds’ ‘Pushin’ Too Hard’,  and the Blue Magoos’  We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet – all of them featured on the classic 1972 double LP Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968 that Lenny Kaye helped to compile.

Returning to the stage, Patti spoke a little about her family history – she had recently been delving into it a little, and had discovered that her antecedents included Irish and Liverpudlian, some of them lacemakers.  Then she gave a stunning performance of ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’, urged on by ay Dee Daugherty’s muscular drumming.  It’s one of the songs that represent the ecstatic strand in Patti Smith’s work  – songs that express a yearning for freedom, spiritual epiphany, and true communion.

Oh to be not anyone – gone
Oh to owe not anyone – nothing
Words that echo that most beautiful of her poem-songs, ‘Wing’, where she writes:
I was a wing in heaven blue
Soared over the ocean
Soared over Spain
And I was free
I needed nobody
It was beautiful.

By the time we reached ‘Pissing in a River’, the musicians on stage and everyone in the audience was drenched in sweat.  The song featured a blistering guitar solo by Lenny Kaye, and there was no let up as ‘Because the Night’ followed.  Is there something about New Jersey?  Born in Chicago on the last day of 1946, Smith spent the bulk of her childhood in southern  New Jersey; in the same years, not so far away, a young Bruce Springsteen was growing up.  They would write this song together.  This is Patti’s performance in Glasgow two nights earlier:

As the notes died away, Patti leaned into the microphone: ‘In this world there is so much strife, stupidity, sorrow, corruption’, she said. ‘We sing of these things – but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a good time, too.’  And then she began to sing one of my personal favourites, ‘Peaceable Kingdom’, inspired by and dedicated to Rachel Corrie and first performed ten days after her death in 2003:

Yesterday I saw you standing there
With your hand against the pane
Looking out the window
At the rain

And I wanted to tell you
That your tears were not in vain
But I guess we both knew
We’d never be the same

Why must we hide all these feelings inside?
Lions and lambs shall abide

Maybe one day we’ll be strong enough
To build it back again
Build the peaceable kingdom
Back again

This was a powerful and moving performance, enhanced by the segue into a spoken verse from ‘People Have the Power’ that Patti has taken to including (the song would return in blistering electric form during the encore). Then Patti and the band tore into her iconic take on Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ that opens with its ringing assertion that ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine’. On this night Patti changed the last verse, spelling out not GLORIA, but PUSSY RIOT, and yelling  ‘Ask Jesus Christ – he would fucking forgive them! Youth and truth should not be imprisoned!’ This is how she did it a few days earlier in Stockholm:

At the close, Patti speaks with anger about the coroner’s ruling the previous day in the so-called ‘friendly fire’ incident in 2009 when two US Apache helicopters attacked a British base in Afghanistan, killing a British soldier.  ‘What the fuck is friendly fire?’ she rages. ‘ This is friendly fire, this is our weapon’, she yells, raising high her guitar.  What a way to end the show!

Patti returned for a three-number encore. ‘Banga’ was up first, preceded by Patti’s explanation of the story behind the song – a story of ‘the true loyalty of  the canine’.  Banga was Pontius Pilate’s dog in Mikhail Bulgakov’s satirical novel The Master And Margarita (a novel I bought when I was at university when it appeared in paperback; I still haven’t read it, but that same paperback is still on my bookshelf). ‘That dog was loyal for 2000 years, sitting at the edge of heaven while Pilate was waiting for Jesus Christ to speak to him,’ Smith explained. ‘It’ll take me 2000 years to finish telling this story’.  It’s a song that is especially suited to live performance with its repeated shout, ‘Banga – Say Banga’.  Towards the end Patti has us all barking like dogs.

Then we got the full electric version of  ‘People Have the Power’, with Patti raging, ‘look what they are doing to our earth – the corporations and the banks’.  ‘Use your voice!’ Patti shouts;  ‘You are the future, and the future is now!’  She screams the opening lines of ‘Babelogue’  – ‘I haven’t fucked much with the past but I’ve fucked plenty with the future’  over the opening chords of ‘Rock and Roll Nigger’. The three imprisoned girls in Russia come to mind again as Patti sings the refrain:

Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me.
Outside of society, that’s where I want to be.

She ends by kneeling, Hendrix-like, guitar aimed at the audience to fire an arrow of love: straining on the string of the guitar, it wails, then snaps with an explosive sound.

‘I’m done, man, she gasps. ‘Manchester, you fuckin’ wore me out!’  And with that she’s gone.

This was a night of rock’n’roll that raised a banner and asserted that its music and words could really mean something – and matter. It was emotion, ecstasy: Jim Morrison’s ‘scream of the butterfly’.  It was a rallying cry, that proclaimed change will come not from the barrel of a gun, but from the pen and from an electric guitar.

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The Beatles make history in Port Sunlight

The Beatles make history in Port Sunlight
The Beatles at the Cavern, 22 August 1962

A Historic Date In Music: August 18, 1962, Hulme Hall, Port Sunlight, Merseyside

Re-posted from sixstr stories, an excellent blog that records important dates in musical history.

This one was especially significant for a whole generation, now old and losing their hair, and unable to believe that it really was 50 years ago that the Beatles in their final form played their first gig together in a village hall on the Wirral.  On 4 September 1962, the Beatles in their new line-up recorded a ‘Love Me Do’ at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios.  Released on 5 October 1962,  the single reached number 17 in the UK pop charts, and a cultural storm was coming.

In 1959, he was the drummer with Rory Storm & The Hurricanes, the biggest of all the groups in Liverpool, England at that time.

But it wasn’t until October and November of 1960 when Rory Storm & The  Hurricanes played alternating sets, seven nights a week, 6 to 8 1/2 hours a night, for eight weeks at a club called The Kaiserkeller in Hamburg, West Germany with another Liverpool group called The Beatles, that John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison really got to know Ringo Starr.

Back home, throughout 1961 and into 1962, John, Paul and George maintained their friendship with Ringo. He was the first one they’d call to fill in when drummer Pete Best couldn’t make an engagement. One such date was Monday, February 5, 1962. On this day, Ringo played two shows: lunchtime at The Cavern Club in Liverpool and an evening gig at the Kingsway Club in  Southport.

In June of 1962, when The Beatles – John, Paul, George and Pete – auditioned for Parlophone Records, producer George Martin liked everything he heard, except Pete’s drumming. So, in early August, after much discussion, The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein got the very difficult job of telling Pete that he was out. Two years and three days after he’d joined the band known originally as The Silver Beetles,  Pete Best played his last performance with John, Paul and George at The Cavern Club on the evening of Wednesday, August 15, 1962.

Brian Epstein also got the job of calling Ringo Starr and offering him the position as full-time drummer for The Beatles.

When Brian called, Ringo was not only still playing for Rory Storm & The Hurricanes, he also had two other offers on the table. King Size Taylor & The Dominoes wanted him to play drums for them and Gerry & The Pacemakers wanted Ringo to be their bass guitar player (even though he had never played bass guitar!).

But Ringo loved playing with John, Paul and George and, as he later said, ”We were pals!” Ringo also knew that The Beatles were on the verge of getting a record deal with EMI and to him, ”a piece of plastic was like gold, was more than gold.”

And, The Beatles offered him the highest salary, £25 a week, to start.

So, shaving off his beard and getting his hair cut in the style worn by his new bandmates, Ringo said, “Yes.”

On Saturday, August 18, 1962, after a two-hour rehearsal, The Beatles – now officially John, Paul, George and Ringo – took the stage at Hulme Hall in Port Sunlight, Birkenhead, England as the headlining act of the Horticultural Society’s 17th annual dance.

Fifty years ago today.

Information for this post was gathered from The Complete Beatles Chronicle (1992) by Mark Lewisohn; The Beatles Anthology (2000) by The Beatles; and The Love You Make – An Insider’s Story of The Beatles (1983) by Peter Brown & Steven Gaines.

Jerry Garcia: No simple highway

Jerry Garcia: No simple highway

See here how everything
Lead up to this day
And it’s just like any other day
That’s ever been
Sun going up and then
The sun going down
Shine through my window
And my friends they come around…

Had he lived, Jerry Garcia would have turned 70 today.  Born on 1 August 1942, Garcia was the warm and charismatic figure whose seemingly effortless guitar solos flowed like water through the Grateful Dead’s performances.  He was born in 1942, in San Francisco, the son of a Spanish immigrant, Jose Garcia, who had been a jazz clarinettist and Dixieland bandleader in the 1930s. In the spring of 1948, while on a fishing trip, Garcia saw his father swept to his death in a California river.

When Garcia was 15, his older brother Tiff- who years earlier had accidentally lopped off Jerry’s right-hand middle finger while the two were chopping wood – introduced him to early rock & roll and rhythm & blues music, and Garcia began to play.  His early appearances on the San Francisco music scene in the early sixties  were performing mainly bluegrass, old-time and folk music in bands with names like the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers,  Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, and the Warlocks.

By 1965, Garcia had fallen in with most of the other musicians who would form the Grateful Dead: Robert Hunter (who wrote most of the lyrics), Phil Lesh the bass player, Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, drummer Bill Kreutzmann, and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir.  The band was renowned for the dazzling interplay between Weir and Garcia in extended jams, and had a reputation for never playing a song the same way twice.

As the band evolved from being blues-oriented towards psychedelic and experimental extemporisations, and to absorbing country and folk influences, Garcia’s guitar remained the distinctive element of their sound. His partnership with songwriter Robert Hunter led to many of the band’s most memorable songs, including personal favourites of mine such as  ‘Uncle John’s Band’, ‘Sugar Magnolia’, ‘Playing in the Band’, ‘Truckin’, ‘China Cat Sunflower’, and ‘Ripple’.

Garcia and the Dead became central to the San Francisco hippie counter-culture of the late sixties where LSD had gained popularity. Garcia first began experimenting with LSD in 1964, and asked later by Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone how it changed his life, he answered:

It just changed everything you know, it was just – ah, first of all, for me personally, it freed me, you know, the effect was that it freed me because I suddenly realized that my little attempt at having a straight life and doing that was really a fiction and just wasn’t going to work out.

Through the turbulent sixties and seventies, Garcia remained an ardent advocate of mind-expanding drugs, but increasingly he struggled with drug addiction, weight problems and diabetes all of which contributed to his physical decline.  Addiction to heroin and cocaine began to affect his musical abilities, and on several occasions other members of the band would insist that he check into a rehabilitation centre.

It was in his room at a California rehabilitation clinic that Garcia’s body was discovered on 9 August 1995. He had died of a heart attack.

There were days, and there were days
And there were days I know
When all we ever wanted
Was to learn and love and grow
Once we grew into our shoes
We told them where to go
Walked halfway around the world
On promise of the glow
Stood upon a mountain top
Walked barefoot in the snow
Gave the best we had to give
How much we’ll never know

In 1967, in a CBS News special that featured an interview with Jerry Garcia and other band members, anchorman Harry Reasoner made these observations about the hippie scene in San Francisco:

Most of these people are young. Most of them come from middle class homes. On the average, they are well educated, or could be if they wanted to. But they do not want that, or much else in our civilization, except on their own terms. In many ways their own terms have the glitter and the attraction of the bright and bold and noisy, but it appears to be style without content.

They object to the ills which beset society– war, social hatreds, money grubbing, spiritual waste… but their remedy is to withdraw into private satisfactions. When one thinks of the problems of our day which cry for attack and imagination and youthful energy, this seems like the greatest waste of all. The movement appears to be growing. Use of drugs appears to be spreading. There is the real danger that more and more young people may follow the call to turn on, tune in, drop out.

‘Ripple’ live in 1980

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music?
Would you hold it near, as it were your own?

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

Patti Smith’s Banga: new lands to be explored

Patti Smith’s Banga: new lands to be explored

PattiSmith Banga

Reviewing Patti Smith’s new album, Banga, for Pitchfork, Lindsay Zoladz writes:

Remember those words that shot out of her lips like hot lightning on her brilliant 1978 record Easter: “I don’t fuck much with the past, but I fuck plenty with the future.” Well, more than three decades later, Banga is the work of someone interested in fucking with everything. […]

Smith is still the eternal college freshman at heart, constantly stumbling upon new artistic heroes and then drawing from them fathomless and unabashedly ebullient inspiration. […]  Ultimately, it’s Banga‘s earnestness about the thrill of discovery that makes it feel so out-of-time and refreshing. It runs counter to that sense of maxed-out ennui that governs the way so many people talk about art and artists in the age of Wikipedia– when posturing that you know it all is more attractive than confessing blind spots, if only so you can bemoan the fact that it’s all been done before. Though more in spirit than in sound, Banga pulses with the notion that there are still good books we haven’t read, old ideas waiting to be fucked with, and new lands we haven’t yet explored.

This, for me, states exactly, precisely, why a new album from Patti Smith is always so exhilarating – she isn’t afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve, and to joyfully stir into the mix imagery and thoughts provoked by art, poetry, film or literature which has recently inspired her.  On Banga, set to some of the best musical arrangements to have graced her albums, played impeccably by familiar collaborators –  guitarist Lenny Kaye, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, bassist Tony Shanahan, guitarist Tom Verlaine, guitarist Jack Petruzzelli, and her children Jackson and Jessi on guitar and piano – her lyrics encompass a dog in Bulgakov’s  Master and Margarita, Nikolai Gogol, film director Andrei Tarkovsky, actress Maria Schneider and ill-starred Amy Winehouse.  About the dog, Patti explained in an interview:

The album title came from the dog in The Master and Margarita. It was Pontius Pilate’s dog and his dog’s name was Banga. The reason I wrote a song for Banga, for those who have not read the book, Pontius Pilate waited on the edge of Heaven for 2000 years to talk to Jesus Christ and his dog, Banga, stayed faithfully by his side and I thought that any dog that would wait 2000 years for his master deserves a song. Its really a song for my band and for the people. It’s a high-spirited song, dedicated to love and loyalty.

Patti Smith seeks out – and yearns to espress – the ecstatic: as she cries in the chorus of ‘Banga’: ‘believe or explode!’  Her imaginative cosmos is inhabited by Blake, Dylan, Jim Morrison, Rimbaud, Gahndi, Baudelaire and Burroughs – all part of a flowing conceptual continuity.

Banga evolved over four years, the songs emerging as Patti wrote her first memoir, Just Kids, the chronicle of her deep friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, which won critical acclaim.  This perhaps explains the variety of subjects and musical moods on the album.  There are catchy, sixties-style pop songs like ‘April Fool’, ‘This Is the Girl’ (for Amy Winehouse), ‘Amerigo’, and the elegaic waltz  ‘Maria’ (written for her friend, the actress Maria Schneider, and evoking, Smith writes in the sleevenotes, ‘the wanderings of the nameless girl in the desert that Maria portrayed in Antonioni’s The Passenger‘).  ‘Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter)’ is a jam inspired by the free jazz of Sun-Ra and Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film, Ivan’s Childhood, in Patti’s estimation ‘the most beautiful movie about war’.  Its repeated phrase, ‘The boy, the beast and the butterfly’ recalling a key scene in the film.

Ivan’s Childhood

The band really rocks out on the title track and ‘Fuji-san’, a remembrance for the victims of Japan’s Tohoku earthquake.  Patti writes  in the notes to Banga:

On March 11, 2011, Japan experienced the Tohoku earthquake. The concern for our friends and all of the Japanese people led Lenny [Kaye] and I to write ‘Fuji-san.’ It is for them — a call of prayer to the great mountain — for a protective cloak of love.

Hokusai : from Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji

But it is the songs that bookend the album on which I’ll focus in this post. ‘Amerigo’ and the epic ‘Constantine’s Dream’ are romantic critiques of conquest and environmental degradation that spiral out into meditations on art and spirituality. ‘Amerigo’, with a lilting and infectious chorus, extrapolates from letters written by Amerigo Vespucci after discovering the New World. Smith imagines his Catholicism and colonial ideology being turned inside-out following his encounters with its indigenous people.

In this land we placed baptismal fonts
And an infinite number were baptized […]

Ah the salvation of souls
But wisdom we had not
for these people had neither king nor lord
And bowed to no one
For they lived in their own liberty

Vespucci arrives in the New World

Amerigo Vespucci was a Florentine merchant and explorer who led four expeditions in search of a western route to the East Indies in the late 15th century, and whose name was given to the American continents by the mapmaker Waldseemüller.  Patti Smith has drawn on letters Vespucci wrote to those who had sponsored his voyages back in Florence.  This is an extract from a letter to Pier Soderini, Gonfalonier of the Republic of Florence that gives an account of Vespucci’s first voyage in 1497 (known as the Soderini letter).  If his claims are in this missive accurate he reached the mainland of the Americas at least 14 months before Columbus:

They are not accustomed to have any Captain, nor do they go in any ordered array, for every one is lord of himself: and the cause of their wars is not for lust of dominion, nor of extending their frontiers, no for inordinate covetousness, but for some ancient enmity which in by-gone times arose amongst them: and when asked why they made war, they knew not any other reason to give than that they did so to avenge the death of their ancestors, or of their parents: these people have neither King, nor Lord, nor do they yield obedience to any one, for they live in their own liberty: and how they be stirred up to go to war is (this) that when the enemies have slain or captured any of them, his oldest kinsman rises up and goes about the highways haranguing them to go with him and avenge the death of such his kinsman: and so are they stirred up by fellow-feeling: they have no judicial system, nor do they punish the ill-doer: nor does the father, nor the mother chastise the children and marvelously (seldom) or never did we see any dispute among them. […]

They sleep in certain very large nettings made of cotton, suspended in the air: and although this their (fashion of) sleeping may seem uncomfortable, I say that it is sweet to sleep in those (nettings): and we slept better in them than in the counterpanes. […]

They use no trade, they neither buy nor sell. In fine, they live and are contended with that which nature gives them. The wealth that we enjoy in this our Europe and elsewhere, such as gold, jewels, pearls, and other riches, they hold as nothing; and although they have them in their own lands, they do not labour to obtain them, nor do they value them. They are liberal in giving, for it is rarely they deny you anything

In the Mundus Novus or Medici letter sent from Lisbon to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, Vespucci describes a later voyage to South America in 1501-1502. In it, Vespucci gives a description of the Carib people of the southern Caribbean and the northern coast of South America:

Albericus Vespucius offers his best compliments to Lorenzo Pietro di Medici. On a former occasion I wrote to you at some length concerning my return from those new regions which we found and explored with the fleet, at the cost, and by the command of this Most Serene King of Portugal. And these we may rightly call a new world. Because our ancestors had no knowledge of them, and it will be a matter wholly new to all those who hear about them. […]

We found in those parts such a multitude of people as nobody could enumerate (as we read in the Apocalypse), a race I say gentle and amenable. Ali of both sexes go about naked, covering no part of their bodies; and just as they spring from their mothers’ wombs so they go until death. They have indeed large square-built bodies, well formed and proportioned, and in color verging upon reddish. This I think has come to them, because, going about naked, they are colored by the sun. They have, too, hair plentiful and black. In their gait and when playing their games they are agile and dignified. […]

They have no cloth either of wool, linen or cotton, since they need it not; neither do they have goods of their own, but ali things are held in common. They live together without king, without government, and each is his own master.[…]

Beyond the fact that they have no church, no religion and are not idolaters, what more can I say ? They live according to nature, and may be called Epicureans rather than Stoics. There are no merchants among their number, nor is there barter.

And the sky opened
And we laid down our armour
And we danced naked as they
Baptized in the rain
Of the New World

Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map grew out of an ambitious project during the first decade of the 16th century to document the  new geographic knowledge gained from the discoveries of the late 15th and the first years of the 16th centuries. Waldseemüller’s large world map included data gathered during Amerigo Vespucci’s voyages of 1501–1502 to the New World. Waldseemüller christened the new lands ‘America’ in recognition of Vespucci ’s understanding that a continent new to Europeans had been discovered as a result of the voyages of Vespucci  and Columbus. There is only one known surviving copy of the first printed edition of the map which probably consisted of 1000 copies.

Waldseemüller’s map supported Vespucci’s revolutionary concept by portraying the New World as a separate continent, until then  unknown to the Europeans. It was the first map to depict clearly a separate Western Hemisphere, with the Pacific as a separate ocean. The map represented a huge leap forward in knowledge, recognizing the newly found American landmass and forever changing the prior European understanding of a world divided into only three parts: Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Martin Waldseemüller’s world map, 1507

Patti explains in the sleeve notes for Banga:

I misplaced the postcard, and confused by the soldiers’ armour, I was unable to locate it in the realm of Spanish art, yet the image haunted me.  Years later, on a plane to Rome, about to embark on an Italian tour, I mentioned the coveted image to Lenny, pledging I would one day find it. Our tour ended in Arezzo. That night, I had a troubled sleep and dreamed of an environmental apocalypse and a weeping Saint Francis. I awoke and went down to a courtyard and entered a church to say a prayer. I noticed a painting on the back wall. Piero della Francesca had created the frescoes of The Legend of the True Cross. There, in all its glory, was the full image that the postcard had detailed – The Dream of Constantine!

Piero della Francesca Dream of Constantine

The Dream of Constantine by Piero della Francesca in the Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo

As fate would have it, it was in the Basilica of St. Francis. I decided to learn more of his life and contribution and also of the painter of The Dream of Constantine. This opened a period of intense study and pilgrimage.

Our friend, Stefano Righi, guided Lenny and I through the stations of Saint Francis’ life: the mountain where birds covered him, singing, the forest in Gubbia where he tamed a wolf, the frescoes of Giotto and finallyhis magnetic tomb, beneath the lower Basilica ofthe Papal Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. We left the memorial card for our beloved friend, the poet Jim Carroll, who revered Saint Francis.

There are many stories I could tell in the creation of ‘Constantine’s Dream’, but let it suffice that Lenny and I prayed before the painting for the strength to achieve our mission. Lenny conceived of the musical themes and guitar figures, and our band recorded a strong basic track. We then took the track back to Arezzo and recruited the band Casa del Vento, whom I met during a benefit concert for EMERGENCY. The band from Arezzo improvised on the track of ‘Constantine’s Dream’, only steps away from the Basilica of Saint Francis, where the piece was born.

‘Constantine’s Dream’ is an improvised, half-sung, half-spoken meditation, recorded live in the studio, that weaves together Columbus’s voyage to the New World, the life and work of Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, the pastoral ideals of St. Francis of Assisi, and environmental cataclysm. It is a major piece of work, exploring the relationship between art, knowledge, spirituality and humanity: rich and compelling, as deep and fully realised as anything she’s ever recorded.

The narrative consists, not of one dream, but a telescopic series of dreams, each one merging into the next like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes. Smith makes connections between seemingly unconnected events; in her hands, time flows like liquid.

In Arezzo, Patti has a dream in which Saint Francis

who kneeled and prayed
For the birds and beasts and all humankind

In the early light, she leaves her room, ‘stepping down the ancient stones, washed with dawn’ and enters the Basilica of San Francesco where she finds peace in a vision of the world of Saint Francis:

I saw before me the world of his world
The bright fields, the birds in abundance
All of nature of which he sang
Singing of him
All the beauty that surrounded him as he walked
His nature that was nature itself

But Patti is senses another call, ‘the call of art, the call of man’ and is drawn to the beauty of Piero della Francesca‘s ‘Legend of the True Cross’, a series of tableaux that includes ‘The Dream of Constantine’, Francesca’s representation of the moment when the crusading Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity after seeing the vision of the True Cross.  Patti here draws on the account of Eusebius, who wrote, ‘he saw with his own eyes in the heavens a trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces or ‘In this sign, you will conquer’.  In her extemporisation this becomes:

And the angel came and showed to him
The sign of the true cross in heaven
And upon it was written
in this sign shall thou conquer’.

From Constantine’s dream, the poem shifts into the dream of the artist:

From the geometry of his heart he mapped it out
He saw the King rise, fitted with armour
Set upon a white horse
An immaculate cross in his right hand.
He advanced toward the enemy
And the symmetry, the perfection of his mathematics
Caused the scattering of the enemy
Agitated, broken, they fled.

Patti sees Francesca wake and cry out:

All is art – all is future!
Oh lord let me die on the back of adventure
With a brush and an eye full of light.

The blind and aged Francesca dies in October 1492, just as ‘a world away, on three great ships, adventure itself’ Columbus arrives on the shore of the ‘New World’. Now, Patti imagines the ecstatic vision of Columbus as he sees the New World for the first time:

And as far as his eyes could see
No longer blind
All of nature unspoiled, beautiful

Columbus set foot on the New World
And witnessed beauty unspoiled
All the delights given by God
As if Eden had opened up her heart to him
And opened her dress
And all of her fruit gave to him

Columbus falls into a sleep and in a dream of his own, sees all of this beauty ‘entwined with the future’ in an apocalyptic vision of nature destroyed – the ‘terrible end of man’, the ‘cross to bear’:

The 21st century advancing like the angel that had come
To Constantine
Constantine in his dream

Oh this is your cross to bear …

All shall crumble into dust
Oh thou navigator
The terrible end of man
This is your gift to mankind
This is your cross to bear
Then Columbus saw all of nature aflame

The apocalyptic night
And the dream of the troubled king
Dissolved into light.

Here, Patti echoes Rousseau’s reversal of the Christian theme of the human fall from grace.  The direction of the fall is reversed: no longer into nature, but into culture.

‘Constantine’s Dream’ is not the final track, though.  The album concludes with Patti’s own haunting take on Neil Young’s visionary account of planetary collapse from the 1970s, ‘After the Gold Rush’, which has ‘Mother nature’s silver seed’ setting off in spaceships to a new home. Patti, accompanied by young children, sings:

Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 21st century…

In the album notes, Patti describes how the last two tracks came into being:

Back in New York at Electric Lady Studios, I summoned all I had experienced in the last year. I considered the night of my apocalyptic dream and finding the postcard image. I thought of the painter who went blind and died October 12, 1492, the same day Columbus set foot in the New World. I thought of Saint Francis and his bond with nature and the threat of environmental devastation in our own century. Surrounded by my supportive camp, I stepped before the microphone. All the research I had done fell away, as I improvised the words, driven by the deep personal struggle of the artist, who by the nature of his calling is obliged to manifest the spiritual as physical matter in the material world.

My daughter Jesse and son Jackson open the Neil Young song. I chose it to follow the dark apocalyptic vision of ‘Constantine’s Dream’, as it offers a new beginning. Tony Shanahan recorded his young nephew Tadhg and friends singing the last refrain. Thus Banga closes with my son and daughter, and the sons and daughter of others – all our children, the hope of the world, embarking on adventures of their own.

At a performance in San Francisco in October 2010, Patti prefaced a performance of her beautiful song ‘Wing’ with a reading of Saint Francis’ prayer.  For the first time I was able to sense the true meaning of his words, free from the defilement that Margaret Thatcher imposed when she intoned them on her election victory in 1979:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Patti Smith’s Banga is, both lyrically and musically, a superb album, bursting with inspiring and challenging ideas.  It comes in a beautiful special edition a 65-page book of original images, complete lyrics, and liner notes by Patti Smith that is a gorgeous artefact in its own right.

See also

Bruce in Manchester: standing shoulder to shoulder in hard times

Bruce in Manchester: standing shoulder to shoulder in hard times

The rain was lashing down so hard that the windscreen wipers could barely cope as I drove over to Manchester to see Bruce Springsteen’s show at the Etihad Stadium yesterday with an old friend who, at the last minute, acquired a pair of tickets from someone unable to go, and had graciously offered one to me.

What were we letting ourselves in for, we wondered, as the radio gave news of chaos as the deluge hit the Isle of Wight Festival, and flooding across the north as a month’s-worth of rain fell in 24 hours.  In Liverpool, as we left, came news that the annual Africa Oye Festival had been cancelled after the stage had begun to sink in waterlogged ground at Sefton Park, and was declared unsafe.

Well, Bruce is The Boss, and he sorted it…minutes before he and his 16-strong band came on stage at 7:15, the rain stopped and, apart from a couple of brief showers later on, no rain fell for the next three and a half hours of the show.

There was no messing about: the band tore into the defiant opening chords of Badlands with a powerful energy that was maintained through the entire show, only pausing for breath during a brief interlude when Bruce sat alone at the piano to play The Promise.

Badlands, you gotta live it every day
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay
We’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good

‘Decline, exploitation, war and death all receive an airing … ennobled into fist-punching entertainment,’ wrote Kitty Empire in her Guardian review of the show at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light three nights ago.  That is the abiding impression left by this show for me, too.  For much of concert, Springsteen’s choice of songs traced a distinct thread, one that raged against the injustices and betrayals of these hard times: the destruction of the material lives of ordinary working men and women, the promise of a better life and the dreams of personal fulfilment crushed by ‘robber barons and greedy thieves’ who ‘ate the flesh of everything they found’ and whose crimes ‘have gone unpunished’.

But Springsteen always ensures that his audiences go home spiritually lifted and with a vision that, standing ‘shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart’ we will one day rise up and leave our sorrows behind:

Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past

The characters and stories in Springsteen’s songs may be vivid portrayals of ordinary men and women doing their best to get by in a tough world, but the language, the imagery, is intensely spiritual – indeed, as is apparent on his new album, Wrecking Ball, increasingly religious, as the songwriter seems to draw on the deep well of his Catholic raising (as does Patti Smith).  Part way through a rendition of My City of Ruins drenched in gospel, Springsteen roared, ‘can you feel the spirit tonight?  Kitty Empire again:

Modern-day mass events – gigs, sporting fixtures and political rallies – can’t help but echo many of the ancestral dynamics of faith gatherings. And while most rock’n’roll makes liberal use of religious metaphors, there is a blatant revivalist tinge to tonight’s show, which borrows heavily from soul and gospel. Land of Hope and Dreams turns into People Get Ready. Lyrically, we are never far from Biblical language – a valley, or a mountain; Springsteen takes us down to The River, to some of the biggest cheers of the night, then takes us up to The Rising…

In another review of this tour, Evelyn McDonnell wrote in the LA Times:

Springsteen has always been a killer showman, someone who’s closely studied the great acts of R&B (the Rev. Al Green and James Brown) and learned how to preach a story, milk a call-and-response affirmation, and play dead then get on up. But increasingly, the gospel roots of this soul man have made themselves manifest. It seems like this Catholic son has been spending time in black churches.

‘Hard times come, hard times go’ is the phrase, delivered as a shamanic incantation part way through the song Wrecking Ball. Springsteen’s songs always have been a powerful combination of hard times and joy, but in these times and in this show that blend was paramount.  The first six songs all expressed the rage and perseverance that ran like a thread through this show: Badlands was followed by a sequence of powerful songs, beginning with No Surrender, reprised from Born In The USA:

Once we made a promise we swore we’d always remember
No retreat, baby, no surrender

Then continuing with a trio from the new album Wrecking Ball: We Take Care of Our Own,Wrecking Ball, and Death to My Hometown.  I was a bit lukewarm about some of the songs when the album first appeared, but performed live in a stadium setting these are powerful anthems. I understand better now what Springsteen is attemting to do beneath the surface patriotism and flag-waving of We Take Care of Our Own:

From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We needed help but the cavalry stayed home…
Where’s the eyes, the eyes with the will to see
Where’s the hearts, they run over with mercy
Where’s the love that has not forsaken me
Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free
Where’s the spirit to reign, reign over me
Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea

Wrecking Ball, written in protest at the demolition of Giants Stadium, is now presented as a metaphor for the destruction wreaked on communities by financial institutions,culminating in that incantation of the phrase, ‘hard times come, and hard times go’:

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
When the game has been decided and we’re burning down the clock
And all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires are scattered through the wind…
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go

Death To My Hometown is as furious and fierce as it gets:

They destroyed our families, factories, and they took our homes
They left our bodies on the plains, the vultures picked our bones …
So listen up, my sonny boy, be ready for when they come
For they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun
Now get yourself a song to sing and sing it ’til you’re done
Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves who came around
And ate the flesh of everything they found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Who walk the streets as free men now
They brought death to our hometown, boys

But if one song stood out in this opening sequence, it was My City of Ruins, a track that I’d almost forgotten.  It dates back twelve years, but took on a different meaning after September 11, and as a result it was added to The Rising.  But now, post-recession, it regains its original sense.  This was a tremendous performance, with Springsteen pushing the gospel exhortation, ‘Come on, rise up’, to the limit:

 Young men on the corner
like scattered leaves
The boarded up windows
The hustlers and thieves
While my brother’s down on his knees
My city of ruins
Come on rise up!

The mid-section of the show consisted of a cavalcade of upbeat numbers, beginning with Spirit in the Night and a rare outing for The E Street Shuffle (with a superb jazzy intro), and several welcome rockers from The River: Two Hearts, You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), Out on the Street, as well as the title track itself, with its fearful challenge:

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse?

Darlington County was peeled off Born in The USA (to be followed later, in the encores, by Bobby Jean and Dancing In The Dark).  Waiting on a Sunny Day came just as rain began to fall for a few minutes.

The main theme returned with a trio of songs from the new album: Jack of All Trades, Shackled and Drawn, and the inspirational Land of Hope and Dreams, with its invocation ‘This train’ rising to a crescendo:

Well, I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion now
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past

Jack of All Trades seems at first a quiet song out of the mouth of a quiet man, but ends with the threat, ‘If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight’:

That hurricane blows
Brings a hard rain
When the blue sky breaks
Feels like the world’s gonna change
We’ll start caring for each other
Like Jesus said that we might
I’m a jack of all trades
We’ll be alright
The banker man grows fat
Working man grows thin
It’s all happened before
And it’ll happen again
It’ll happen again
It’ll beg your life
I’m a jack of all trades
Darling, we’ll be alright

Shackled and Drawn rails against a world gone wrong:

Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills
It’s still fat and easy up on bankers hill
Up on bankers hill the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock, son, and carry it on
Trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong

The Promise and The Rising were in there, too:

All my life, I fought that fight
The fight that you can’t win
Every day it just gets harder to live
The dream you’re believing in …
The promise is broken, you go on living
It steals something from down in your soul

There isn’t a Springsteen song that doesn’t, in the end, create spiritual uplift.  But on this night, he seemed to demarcate sections of the show to different moods: apart from a sequence of rockers from The River album, he reserved the uplifting, crowd-rousing songs mainly for the lengthy encore, with unavoidable numbers such as Thunder Road, Born to Run and Dancing In The Dark. The encore set opened with the most uplifting song off Wrecking Ball, We Are Alive:

Our spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
Bruce with Max Weinberg on drums (from Backstreets.com)
Bruce with Nils Lofgren (from Backstreets.com)

Springsteen boasts an augmented E Street Band on this tour – 16 members, including old stalwarts Roy Bittan (piano, synthesizer), Nils Lofgren (guitar, vocals), Patti Scialfa (guitar, vocals), Garry Tallent (bass guitar), Stevie Van Zandt (guitar, vocals), Max Weinberg (drums) and Charlie Giordano (keyboards).  They are augmented by new recruits such as Soozie Tyrell (violin, guitar) and a tremendous brass section, including tuba, trumpet and trombone.  But the most crucial new guy is Jake Clemons, the nephew of the late Clarence Clemons, whose shoes he has filled effortlessly.

But Clarence is missed deeply; during My City of Ruins, Bruce took a roll call of the band, asking, finally, ‘Are we missing anyone tonight?’.  Everyone in the crowd knew to what he was referring: not just the loss of Clarence, but also organist Danny Federici, who died in 2008.

Clarence Clemons and Bruce back then
Clarence Clemons and Bruce back then

Later, during the encore, came the most moving moment: during the climactic Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, at the line, ‘When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band’, Springsteen stopped the music. For several minutes Springsteen held up his microphone, urging the crowd (who really didn’t need any urging) to clap, roar, cheer or cry as images of the Big Man’s career flashed up on the giant screens. It was rock ‘n’ roll catharsis. It was beautiful.

At 62, Springsteen can still strut his stuff – he’s insanely active for someone his age, powering through the show non-stop for nearly four hours.  He knows he’s old enough to be granddad to a large section of the crowd (that age profile was pleasing), and makes a point of emphasising it with a knowing grin in Dancing in the Dark when he comes to the line

You sit around getting older
there’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me

There’s  a bit of a performance, too,  halfway through the encore when Bruce makes out that he’s completely knackered, collapsing to the stage and lying flat out as Steve Van Zandt tries to revive him by drenching him with a huge spongeful of water.




Earlier, just as the rain returns for a brief moment, Bruce goes straight into Waiting on a Sunny Day, with its opening line, ‘Well it’s raining…’.and then urges a young boy to join him on stage to sing a chorus or two.

This, and other moments, drove home what a great showman Bruce is.  During Dancing in the Dark, he replicates the famous video at the time of the single release by having a couple of young women pulled on stage to dance alongside him, before each receiving a hug and a kiss. What a memory to take home from a show that was powerful, emotional and memorable for all of us.

The full setlist was:

  • Badlands
  • No Surrender
  • We Take Care of Our Own
  • Wrecking Ball
  • Death to My Hometown
  • My City of Ruins
  • Spirit in the Night
  • The E Street Shuffle
  • Jack of All Trades
  • Atlantic City
  • Prove It All Night
  • Two Hearts
  • You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
  • Darlington County
  • Shackled and Drawn
  • Waiting on a Sunny Day
  • Save My Love
  • The Promise
  • The River
  • The Rising
  • Out on the Street
  • Land of Hope and Dreams

Encore:

  • We are Alive
  • Thunder Road
  • Born to Run
  • Bobby Jean
  • Cadillac Ranch
  • Dancing in the Dark
  • Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
  • Twist and Shout

These video clips are from other performances on the 2012 tour, but I’ve chosen them because they are high quality – and capture a few of the high points of what is clearly a crafted show that has retained certain key elements on every night of the tour:

Badlands – Madison Square Garden on 6 April

Waiting On A Sunny Day on 17 April in Cleveland

Tenth Avenue Freeze Out in Boston on 26 March 26 with tribute to Clarence Clemons

And here are two additional nuggets that offer further revealing glimpses of the man.  First, at his Berlin concert, Bruce performed When I Leave Berlin, a song from the 1973 album by British folk musician Wizz Jones:

When morning comes and I’ll leave Berlin
My mind is turning
My heart is yearning
For you and Berlin

Here today but the wall is open call out the soldiers and the guns
Here today the gates are open mothers are in the arms of their sons
When morning comes and I’ll leave Berlin
I’ll know for certain I am a free man When I leave Berlin

And finally, the other week, Springsteen inducted Jackson Browne into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a fine speech that ended with this passage:

In seventies, post-Vietnam America, there was no album that captured the fall from Eden, the long, slow after-burn of the sixties; it’s heartbreak, it’s disappointments, it’s spent possibilities better than Jackson’s masterpiece, Late For the Sky. It’s just a beautiful body of work. It’s essential in making sense of the times. Before the Deluge still gives me goosebumps and it raises me to cause. Late For the Sky, when those car doors slam at the end of the record, they still bring tears. And there was no more searching, yearning, loving music made for and about America at the time. […]

Jackson’s influence and his voice has always been his own. He’s one of the true activist musicians I’ve ever known. World In Motion, Looking East, Lives In the Balance, he followed his muse wherever it took him. Risked his, and he paid whatever the cost. He’s long put his mouth, his money, and his body where his politics are. Lives In The Balance sounds more urgent today than it ever did. […]

Listen to the chord changes of Rock Me On the Water and Before the Deluge, it’s gospel through and through. Now I always thought that in our fall from Eden, besides the strains of physicality and the bearing of earthly burdens, our real earthly task was that an unbridgeable gap, or a black hole was opened up in our ability to truly love one another. And so our job here on earth, the way we regain our divinity, our sacredness, and our general good-standing is by reconstructing love and creating love out of the broken pieces that we’ve been given. That’s all we have of human promise. That’s the way we prove ourselves in the eyes of God and facilitate our own redemption. Now, to me Jackson Browne’s work was always the sound of that reconstruction. So as he writes in The Pretender:We’ll put our dark glasses on, and we’ll make love until our strength is gone, and when the morning light comes streamin’ in, we’ll get up and do it again. Amen.

Capitalism: an infantile disorder

Capitalism: an infantile disorder

The other night I watched Surviving Progress, a documentary shown on BBC4 that questions the standard view of progress, suggesting that civilizations are repeatedly destroyed by ‘progress traps’ – technologies that serve immediate needs, but ransom the future. In the past, civilizations could use up a region’s resources and move on. But if today the global economic system collapses from over-consumption and laying waste the planet’s resources, that’s it. There is nowhere else to go.

The message of the film seemed to reinforce a growing feeling I’ve had in recent weeks that the global capitalist system we live under (‘civilization’ seems to noble a term), far from being, as presented by the practitioners of that dubious discipline economics, one of rationally operating markets that deliver sensible and sustainable outcomes, is no more than an infantile disorder: stupid, irrational, and self-destructive.

Surviving Progress argues that the world has financed an unsustainable growth rate by essentially encouraging whole nations to take out unpayable mortgages on their own futures. In the film, Brazil is taken as an example: huge loans are advanced to the nation, which is unable to keep up the repayments, and is then encouraged to liquefy its own natural assets – the rainforests. When the assets are gone and the wealth extracted, the corporations leave behind a drained nation and the bankers move on to another loan customer.

Dumb? Absolutely.  The same sense of stupidity emerged from a piece in The Guardian recently, written by Ha-Joon Chang of Cambridge University and author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. Commenting on the eurozone crisis and the unwillingness of the eurozone leaders to alter their austerity policies, even as Greece and Spain fall apart, he noted that it is increasingly accepted that these policies are not working in the current environment. But what’s worse is that there is abundant historical evidence showing that austerity has never worked. What kind of person fails to learn the lessons of previous experience?  Ha-Joon Chang has the answer:

Perhaps they are insane – if we follow Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. But the more likely explanation is that, by pushing these policies against all evidence, our leaders are really telling us that they want to preserve – or even intensify, in areas like welfare policy – the economic system that has served them so well in the past three decades.

He concludes that the time has come for us to decide:

Do we want a society where 50% of young people are kept out of work in order to bring the deficit down from 9% of GDP to 3% in three years? A society in which the rich have to be made richer to work harder (at their supposed jobs of investing and creating wealth) while the poor have to be made poorer in order to work harder? Where a tiny minority (often called the 1% but more like the 0.1% or even 0.01%) control a disproportionate, and increasing, share of everything – not just income and wealth but also political power and influence (through control of the media, thinktanks, and even academia)?

If you want a tiny example of how a rich elite are increasing their share of wealth and running the country in their selfish interests, meanwhile threatening the environment, read George Monbiot’s brilliant piece of investigative journalism, published this week in the Guardian.  He writes that ‘the pheasant, rather than the Gini coefficient should now be the unit for measuring inequality.

As Britain heads towards Edwardian levels of inequality, the countryside reverts to a playground for the rich, in which anything that cannot be shot and eaten is shot and hung from a gibbet. The aristocracy is back in charge. … In the countryside, as in the towns, policy is becoming the preserve of the 1%. The rest of us pay the landowners to expand their estates and destroy the wildlife. That’s what they mean when they say we’re all in this together.

Worth reading, too, is Larry Elliott’s chilling despatch from Greece last week.  Elliott, along with Paul Mason of Newsnight, is always a reliable guide to the world of financial capitalism.  Just days after IMF Chief Christine Lagarde provoked fury with her outrageous comments about ‘tax-dodging’ Greeks, Elliott wrote:

Greece is broke and close to being broken. It is a country where children are fainting in school because they are hungry, where 20,000 Athenians are scavenging through waste tips for food, and where the lifeblood of a modern economy – credit – is fast drying up.  It is a country where the fascists and the anarchists battle for control of the streets, where immigrants fear to go out at night and where a woman whispers “it’s like the Weimar republic” as a motorcycle cavalcade from the Golden Dawn party, devotees of Adolf Hitler, cruises past the parliament building. Graffiti says: “Foreigners get out of Greece. Greece is for the Greeks. I will vote for Golden Dawn to remove the filth from the country.”

It has been interesting, too, to read the reviews of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s new book, What Money Can’t Buy.  It’s a study of ‘the moral limits of markets’ in the context of the increasing ubiquity of market ideas.

Michael Sandel

‘Over the past three decades,’ Sandel writes, ‘markets – and market values – have come to govern out lives as never before.’ Sandel is not arguing from a socialist position, and argues that markets can work in the right situation. He asserts: ‘No other mechanism for organising the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful for generating affluence and prosperity’. But Sandel is interested in what he sees as a critical loss of our collective moral compass in recent times as market thinking has swept the board in economics, and then spread to almost every area of public policy:

The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.

His central thesis is that markets have a moral impact on the goods that are traded in them. When something which is supposed to be a common good is marketised it invariably leads not only to unfairness, but, just as importantly, it corrupts and degrades the thing being marketised.

He quotes a vivid example that sums up the entire argument of What Money Can’t Buy; an Israeli daycare centre, which had a problem of parents turning up late to collect their children, introduced fines. The result? Late pick-ups increased. Parents turned up late, paid the fine, and thought no more of it; the fine had turned into a fee.  Morality had been marketised.  The fear of disapproval and of doing the wrong thing (turning up late) was based on non-monetary values, on morality. Even though the daycare centre went back to the old system, parents kept turning up late, because the introduction of market values had killed the old ideas of collective responsibility. Sandel concludes:

The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?

The economic and social progress that has resulted in climate change raises questions of morality in an intractable form.  In a recent article in the London Review of Books, Malcolm Bull wrote:

Adam Smith once noted that we are less troubled by the prospect of a hundred million people dying as a result of an earthquake in some distant location than of losing our little finger, but would nevertheless be horrified by the idea we might allow them to die in order to save it. Climate change effectively transforms the former scenario into the latter, and so places unprecedented demands on our moral imagination. Almost every little thing we do contributes to our carbon footprint, which increases greenhouse gases, which could in turn ultimately threaten hundreds of millions of lives in some remote time and place – the uncertainty only adding to the sublime awfulness of our responsibilities.

Bull’s conclusion was hopeful, though:

Climate change does not tempt us to be less moral than we might otherwise be; it invites us to be more moral than we could ever have imagined. … Climate ethics is … a new chapter in the moral education of mankind. It may tell us things we do not wish to know … but the future development of humanity may depend on what, if anything, it can teach us.

Returning to Surviving Progress.  The film illustrates the argument of the book, A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. He was previously known to me as an authority on the pre-Colombian civilizations of the Americas.  Some time ago I read a couple of his books on this subject, Stolen Continents: The ‘New World’ through Indian Eyes and Cut Stones and Crossroads: Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru.  This film continues and develops Wright’s interest in how civilizations rise – and are destroyed. He coins the term ‘progress trap’ to define human behaviours that seem to amount to progress and to provide benefits in the short-term, but which ultimately lead to disaster because they’re unsustainable.

The film argues his case that the exponential growth in human numbers, the development of technologies, and the rapacious exploitation of the world’s natural resources threaten the planet, and the very existence of humanity.  ‘Progress’ – defined in terms of never-ending economic growth – could destroy us.  On population growth, he states controversially:

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and Columbus sailing, it took 13 centuries to add 200 million people to the world’s population. Now it takes only three years. A simple thing like pasteurization, the warming of milk so that the bacteria are killed and the control of smallpox. Things like that have led to a great boom in human numbers.  So, overpopulation, which nobody really wants to talk about because it cuts at things like religious beliefs and the freedom of the individual and the autonomy of the family and so forth, is something that we’re going to have to deal with. We probably have to work towards a much smaller worldwide population than 6 or 7 billion. We probably need to go down to a half that or possibly even a third of that, if everybody is going to live comfortably and decently.

But the film also tackles the more significant aspect of this problem: the footprint of the individuals at the top of the social pyramid who are consuming the most. Somebody in the United States or Europe is consuming about 50 times more resources than a poor person in a place like Bangladesh.  And to sustain the lifestyles of the planet’s rich, the banks and big corporations plunder the natural capital of our home, planet earth.  In the film Wright sums up the problem as he sees it:

Some people have written about natural capital, the capital that nature provides, which is the clean air, the clean water, the, the uncut forests, the, the rich farmland, and the minerals, the oil, the metals. All of these things are the capital that nature has provided. And until about 1980, human civilization was able to live on, what we might term, the interest of that capital, the surplus that nature is able to produce, the food that farmland can grow without actually degrading the farmland or the number of fish you can pull out of the sea without causing the fish stocks to crash. But since 1980, we’ve been using more than the interest, and so we are in effect like somebody who thinks he’s rich because he’s spending the money that has been left in his inheritance, not spending the interest but eating into the capital.

Margaret Atwood appears in the film, and underlines its message with these words:

Instead of thinking that nature is this huge bank that we can just, this endless credit card that we can just keep drawing on, we have to think about the finite nature of that planet and how to keep it alive so that we too may remain alive. Unless we conserve the planet, there isn’t going to be any ‘the economy’.

Surviving Progress argues that faith in progress has become a kind of religious faith, a sort of fundamentalism, rather like the market fundamentalism that has just recently crashed and burned. Wright says:

The idea that you can let markets rip is a delusion, just as the idea that you can let technology rip, and it will solve the problems created by itself in a slightly earlier phase. That, that has become a belief very similar to the religious delusions that caused some societies to crash and burn in the past.

The anthropologist Jane Goodall puts it this way:

Unlimited economic progress in a world of finite natural resources doesn’t make sense. It’s a pattern that is bound to collapse. And we keep seeing it collapsing, but then we build it up because there are these strong vested interests, we must have business as usual. And you know, you get the arms manufacturers, you get the petroleum industry, the pharmaceutical industry and all of this feeding into helping to create corrupt governments who are putting the future of their own people at risk.

Towards the end of the film, Ronald Wright sums up his case in these words:

All the civilizations of the past, and I think our own, only seem to be doing well when they’re expanding, when the population is growing, when the industrial output is growing, and when the cities are spreading outwards. Eventually you reach the point at which the population has overrun everything, the cities have expanded over the farmland, the people at the bottom begin to starve, and the people at the top lose their legitimacy. And so, you get, you get hunger, you get revolution.Now, one kind of scary thing about the moment we’re in is that for the first time there’s kind of only one system. So, if the whole thing goes down, you won’t have what you’ve had in previous eras of epic collapse, which is that even a one civilization goes down, and it may take a while to recover, there are other robust civilizations that are kind of the guardians of progress.

As I listened to Margaret Atwood say, ‘all we’ve got is planet Earth, and we are destroying, we are polluting, we are damaging the future of our own species’, I thought of Banga, the new album from Patti Smith that I’ve been listening to this week.  In part, her theme is  environmental crisis and the destruction of the beauty and mystery of the natural world.  The album concludes with her own haunting take on Neil Young’s visionary account of planetary collapse from the 1970s, ‘After the Gold Rush’, which has ‘Mother nature’s silver seed’ setting off in spaceships to a new home.  Only – there is nowhere else to go.

On the previous track Patti Smith explores ideas that touch on the discussion here. ‘Constantine’s Dream’ is a ten minute improvised, half-sung, half-spoken meditation that weaves together Columbus’s voyage to the New World, the life and work of Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, the pastoral ideals of St. Francis of Assisi, and environmental cataclysm.

In Arezzo, Patti has a dream in which Saint Francis weeps at the current state of the environment,then, in the dawn, she leaves her room, ‘stepping down the ancient stones, washed with dawn’ and enters the Basilica of San Francesco:

I saw before me the world of his world
The bright fields, the birds in abundance
All of nature of which he sang
Singing to him
All the beauty of nature surrounded him as he walked

But Patti is senses ‘the call of art, the call of man’ and is drawn to the beauty of Piero della Francesca‘s ‘Legend of the True Cross’, a series of tableaux that includes ‘The Dream of Constantine’, Francesca’s representation of the moment when the crusading Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity after seeing the vision of the True Cross: ‘with this sign shall thou conquer’. In her poem, Patti has Francesca cry out on finishing his painting:

Oh lord let me die on the back of adventure
With a brush and an eye full of light.

The Dream of Constantine by Piero della Francesca in the Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo

Francesca dies in October 1492, just as ‘a world away, on three great ships, adventure itself’ Columbus arrives on the shore of the ‘New World’. Patti imagines the ecstatic vision of Columbus as he sees the New World for the first time:

And as far as his eyes could see
No longer blind
All of nature unspoiled, beautiful

Columbus set foot on the New World
And witnessed beauty unspoiled
All the delights given by God
As if Eden had opened up her heart to him
And opened her dress
And all of her fruit gave to him

Columbus falls into a swoon and a vision of his own:

The 21st century advancing like the angel
That had come to Constantine
Constantine in his dream

Oh this is your cross to bear …

All shall crumble into dust
Oh thou navigator
The terrible end of man
This is your gift to mankind
This is your cross to bear
Then Columbus saw all of nature aflame

The apocalyptic night
And the dream of the troubled king
Dissolved into light.

The album closes with Patti, accompanied by small children, singing:

Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 21st century…

Bruce Springsteen’s new album and a keynote speech

I’ve been listening to Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, currently riding high in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.  Some have compared it to his 1984 album, Born In The USA, in that both are ‘state of the nation’ collections.  Wrecking Ball‘s  dominant theme is the economic hardship being experienced in America after the banking crash.  Overall, I’ve been rather disappointed, though the album does contain three songs that rank among the very best that Springsteen has recorded, so perhaps I shouldn’t grouch.  However, despite Springsteen’s heart being in the right place politically with almost every song raging against the banks and the lives wasted by unemployment, musically too many tracks sound bombastic and synthesised, while the songs just aren’t as well-crafted as they once were.

The classic Springsteen songs have at their heart verses that tell compelling, personal stories of characters with whom we can empathise.  Around the verses Springsteen would build his inspiring choruses that expanded the personal vignettes with images or metaphors that made them universal. He once summed up the approach as ‘the verses are the blues, the chorus is the gospel’.

On Wrecking Ball the anthemic choruses have drowned out individual stories on most of the songs. The music is bombastic and Springsteen seems to shout the lines. A telling case in point is the song ‘Death To My Hometown’ which bears obvious similarities in its title to ‘My Hometown’ on Born In The USA. The latter song gained its strength by personalising  the theme of industrial and urban decline with a story that spanned two generations:

I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
Id sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town
Hed tousle my hair and say son take a good look around
This is your hometown …

Now main streets whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there aint nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they aint coming back to
Your hometown, your hometown, your hometown, your hometown

Last night me and Kate we laid in bed talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
Im thirty-five we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good
Look around
This is your hometown …

But ‘Death to My Hometown’ just rants:

They destroyed our families’ factories and they took our homes
They left our bodies on the plains
The vultures picked our bones
So listen up, my Sonny boy
Be ready for when they come
For they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun
Now get yourself a song to sing and sing it ’til you’re done
Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber baron’s straight to hell
The greedy thieves that came around
And ate the flesh of everything they’ve found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Walk the streets as free men now
And they brought death to our hometown, boys

Similarly, the opening track, ‘We Take Care Of Our Own,’ mirrors the title track of Born In The USA (and, although it’s actually a call for a more caring, inclusive nation, will probably have its politics misconstrued in the same way, due to its chorus of ‘Wherever this flag’s flown/We take care of our own‘).  But, unlike the 1984 song,  has no story to tell – it’s all chorus (and to a European ear its patriotism, even if it’s the patriotism of the common man, sounds disturbing).  All of this suggests that good politics doesn’t necessarily produce great songwriting.

If there’s a common theme to these songs, apart from the depredations of ‘the fat cats’ up ‘on bankers’ hill’, it’s the virtues of hard work and sweat: it would be interesting to count the number of times those two words crop up across the collection.

However, the last three songs on Wrecking Ball are much better, and redeem the earlier, rather indifferent tracks. ‘Rocky Ground’ is musically inspired, incorporating horns, a sample from an Alan Lomax field recording, and gospel singer Michelle Moore on both the chorus and a closing rap.  The lyrics are overtly religious, as Springsteen draws on his Catholic upbringing for inspiration:

Forty days and nights of rain have washed this land
Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand
Find your flock, get them to higher ground
Flood waters rising and we’re Canaan bound
We’ve been traveling over rocky ground, rocky ground …
Rise up shepherd, rise up
Your flock has roamed far from the hills
Stars have faded, the sky is still
Sun’s in the heavens and a new day’s rising

You use your muscle and your mind and you pray your best
That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest
You raise your children and you teach ‘them to walk straight and sure
You pray that hard times, hard times, come no more
You try to sleep, you toss and turn, the bottom’s dropping out
Where you once had faith now there’s only doubt
You pray for guidance, only silence now meets your prayers

There’s a new recording of ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’, first released on the Live in New York City album. This studio version is superb, and acquires a special significance when midway through the song, Clarence Clemons contributes his only saxophone solo on the album.  This was his last recording.

The closing track, ‘We Are Alive, has a similar concept to ‘The Rising’: the dead rising from their graves. Here, Springsteen celebrates Americans who died fighting for a better future: railroad workers who took part in the Great Strike of 1877, civil rights activists and migrants seeking a better life in El Norte:

We are alive 
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark 
Our spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark 
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart 

A voice cried out, I was killed in Maryland in 1877 
When the railroad workers made their stand 
Well, I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham 
Well, I died last year crossing the southern desert 
My children left behind in San Pablo 
Well they left our bodies here to rot 
Oh please let them know 
We are alive 
Oh, and though we lie alone here in the dark 
Our souls will rise to carry the fire and light the spark 
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

One of the most insightful reviews of the album was by David Fricke in Rolling Stone.  He begins:

Wrecking Ball is the most despairing, confrontational and musically turbulent album Bruce Springsteen has ever made. He is angry and accusing in these songs, to the point of exhaustion, with grave reason. The America here is a scorched earth: razed by profiteers, and suffering a shameful erosion in truly democratic values and national charity. The surrender running through the chain-gang march and Springsteen’s muddy-river growl in “Shackled and Drawn”; the double meaning loaded into the ballad “This Depression”; the reproach driving “We Take Care of Our Own,” a song so obviously about abandoned ideals and mutual blame that no candidate would dare touch it: This is darkness gone way past the edge of town, to the heart of the republic.

Rolling Stone also has a feature in which Springsteen explains the album.

Meanwhile, Bruce Springsteen gave the keynote speech at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.  In an sometimes halting performance that alternated between the inspiring and the mundane, he surveyed the musical influences that have shaped his music, and ended with a stirring rallying cry that reads better on the page than it sounded when Bruce delivered it:

Rumble, young musicians, rumble.  Open your ears, open your hearts. Don’t take yourselves too seriously and take yourself as seriously as death itself.  Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have iron clad confidence. But doubt! It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town and you suck. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well in your heart and head at all times. If it does not drive you crazy it will make you strong. Stay hard, stay hungry and stay alive.

Springsteen recited a litany of musicians who helped shape his music and his politics and his sense of what made a great rock song.  In particular he singled out the Animals, crediteding the band with introducing him to the idea that politics and social anger had a place in popular music.  Springsteen picked up his guitar and sang a few verses from the Animals’ hit ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’. Finishing, Springsteen said:

That’s every song I have written. That’s all of them. I’m not kidding either … it was the first time I felt I heard something come across the radio that mirrored my home life and my childhood.

For Springsteen, Soul, Motown, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Hank Williams and country music were all formative influences. Country music had taught him the importance of focussing on telling the stories of ordinary men and women in his songs. ‘In country music I found the adult blues. I found the working men and women’s stories I had been looking for,’ he said (though he added that it lacked the political bite that he sought: ‘Country seemed not to question why. It was about doing then dying, screwing then crying, boozing then trying’.  He found the perfect combination in the work of  Woody Guthrie: ‘Woody’s world was a world where fatalism was tempered by a practical idealism … he is a big, big ghost in the machine’.

Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning: mythic tale

Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning: mythic tale

This is a 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.  Once only in my life have I ridden a motorbike and it wasn’t a Vincent, and it scared the shit out of me.  But I can see that it is an object of great beauty.  In her BBC Radio 4 series, More Guitar Favourites, Joan Armatrading talked with Richard Thompson about his song that has one of these machines in the starring role.

Thompson’s song ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ first appeared on his 1991 album Rumour and Sigh, and it’s been a favourite of mine ever since – I’ve seen him perform it live a few times. I’ve admired it for its clever musicality, set to the melody and structure of a traditional English ballad (think ‘Lord Randall’, ‘Matty Groves’ or ‘The Famous Flower of Serving-Men’), with its tale of star-crossed lovers and the bike that brings them together being a superb piece of songwriting and story-telling in that tradition of the damsel borne away on the mount of gypsy outlaw:

Says Red Molly to James “That’s a fine motorbike. 
A girl could feel special on any such like” 
Says James to Red Molly “My hat’s off to you 
It’s a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952. 
And I’ve seen you at the corners and cafes it seems 
Red hair and black leather, my favourite colour scheme” 
And he pulled her on behind and down to Box Hill they did ride
Oh says James to Red Molly “Here’s a ring for your right hand 
But I’ll tell you in earnest I’m a dangerous man. 
For I’ve fought with the law since I was seventeen, 
I robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine. 
Now I’m 21 years, I might make 22 
And I don’t mind dying, but for the love of you. 
And if fate should break my stride 
Then I’ll give you my Vincent to ride”

“Come down, come down, Red Molly” called Sergeant McRae 
“For they’ve taken young James Adie for armed robbery. 
Shotgun blast hit his chest, left nothing inside. 
Oh come down, Red Molly to his dying bedside” 
When she came to the hospital, there wasn’t much left 
He was running out of road, he was running out of breath 
But he smiled to see her cry 
He said “I’ll give you my Vincent to ride”

Says James “In my opinion, there’s nothing in this world 
Beats a 52 Vincent and a red headed girl. 
Now Nortons and Indians and Greeves won’t do, 
Ah, they don’t have a soul like a Vincent 52″ 
Oh he reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys 
Said “I’ve got no further use for these. 
I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome, 
Swooping down from heaven to carry me home” 
And he gave her one last kiss and died 
And he gave her his Vincent to ride.

Such great lines there:

When she came to the hospital, there wasn’t much left 
He was running out of road, he was running out of breath

and

Oh he reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys 
Said “I’ve got no further use for these. 
I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome, 
Swooping down from heaven to carry me home”

Speaking to Joan Armatrading, Richard Thompson explained his intentions when writing the song:

I was looking for some equivalent to a Chuck Berry song about a car. Song mythology was imported from America pretty much with the gramophone.  So what I was trying to do with the Vincent song was to find British objects that had some romance to them, that I could use as mythological objects in themselves. I thought the Vincent motorcycle – it’s very rare, it had the land speed record, it’s very beautiful, it’s a sort of fetishistic object – if I put this at the centre of the song, it can act as a lodestone to build the story around.

Two fine versions of the song exist on YouTube:

Ry Cooder: songs for grubby, grabbing times

‘These times call for a very different kind of protest song. ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ We’re way down the road from that’.
– Ry Cooder

Which album released this year speaks most plainly to the times in which we live?  No contest: it’s Ry Cooder’s latest, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, an overtly political work which opens with ‘No Banker Left Behind’, a stomping old-time, jug-band tune that paints an image of bankers fleeing the country after ‘they robbed the nation blind’.  It was inspired by a news headline about the bailout of the America’s big banks.  Reviewing the album on the BBC website, Andy Fyfe concluded:

This is about as good and sustained a riposte to the grubby, grabbing times we live in as any artist has mustered, which makes it essential listening.

The songs on the album are angry, regretful, impassioned. Cooder is angry about the financial collapse, the bailout of the banks, despoilation of the environment and senseless wars. Embracing just about every musical style in the Americana bag – blues, folk, ragtime, Tex-Mex, conjunto, rock, and country – he has produced a set of scathing protest songs aimed at Wall Street bankers, Republican politicians, George W. Bush, anti-immigrant vigilantes and war profiteers.  Uncut magazine has called this ‘one of his best albums ever … an impassioned portrait of 21st century America and its injustices’ in which Cooder is ‘remade as a modern-day Woody Guthrie, fearless and funny, for like Guthrie he nails his targets with droll humour while empathising with society’s underdogs’.

My telephone rang one evening, my buddy called for me
Said the bankers are all leavin’, you better come round and see
It started revelation, they robbed the nation blind,
They’re all down at the station, no banker left behind.
No banker, no banker, no banker could I find.
They were all down at the station, no banker left behind

Well the bankers called a meetin’, to the White House they went one day
They was going to call one the president, in a quiet and a sociable way
The afternoon was sunny and the weather it was fine
They counted all our money and no banker was left behind
No banker, no banker, no banker could I find.
They were all down at the White House, no banker was left behind

Well I hear the whistle blowin, it plays a happy tune
The conductor is calling  ‘all aboard’, we’ll be leavin soon
With champagne and shrimp cocktails and that’s not all you’ll find
There’s a billion dollar bonus and no banker left behind.

A couple of weeks ago, Ry Cooder hammered the message home with a brand new song about the Occupy Wall Street movement, ‘Wall Street Part of Town’.  Listen to it here:

Back with Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, Cooder pulls no punches, laying into greed and inhumanity.  After ‘No Banker Left Behind’ with its bleak humour, ‘El Corrido de Jesse James’ offers up, in waltz time, the notion that Jesse James is so disgusted watching the bankers rip us all off that begs to be allowed to visit some Old West justice on Wall Street with his ‘trusty 44’.

The outlaw Jesse James was up in heaven
With old friends around the kingdom throne
Boys I was branded as a bandit and bank robber
But I never turned a family from their home

We’re sworn to pass no judgments here in heaven
But there’s goings on a man can’t stand no more
There’s no open carry up in heaven
But please give me back my trusty .44

‘Quicksand’  is a pounding electric rocker concerned with the plight of illegal immigrants crossing into Arizona, the state with the strictest immigration law that makes failure to carry immigration documents a crime and gives the police power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally:

Thought we was getting close to Yuma
I heard it’s an unfriendly town
We just need a cool drink of water
Even Yuma can’t turn a poor boy down
Then a Dodge Ram truck drove down on us
Saying I’m your Arizona vigilante man
I’m here to say you ain’t welcome in Yuma
I’m taking you out just as hard as I can

From Pull Up's back cover

The very next track, ‘Dirty Chateau’, condemns the hypocrisy surrounding Mexican immigration in a song in which two voices weave around each other: that of a rich man in a Hollywood chateau and his Mexican maid.

I had a maid she used to come in days
Made the bed and mopped the fIoor
She didn’t like my rowdy ways
And she ain’t coming back no more:

‘You waste all your precious time
Italian movies and Portuguese wine
Little round bottles all in a row
You’re an unclean man in a dirty chateau’

She started life in the lettuce fields
Up in Salinas where the farm work is done

‘You go streaking by in your automobiles
You don’t even know where your lettuce comes from
The short handled hoe it scarred my hands
Tell me why do they love it so
It broke mama down daddy too
Now I work for you in your dirty chateau’

My friends are coming and they’d like to hear
A real sad Mexican song or two
They’ve been drinking and they don’t care
Just what you been goin’ through
How about Paloma Sin Nido
Pa Que Me Sirve la Vida
What about Pobre del Pobre
Also Lamento de un Prisionero

She used to call me borracho y perdido
Said I was loco y jodido
Buena para nada
Nunca quiero ver tu cara
But she’s gone in the world somewhere
Turlock somewhere, Stockton somewhere,
Salinas somewhere, Los Angeles somewhere, I just don’t know

‘If There’s A God’ also lays into Arizona’s immigration laws, with God driven from heaven by laws that herald a return to Jim Crow segregation. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joe’ all hit the road for Mexico. The anti-war message is delivered in various flavours: in the sleepy blues number, ‘Baby Joined the Army’, a father laments his child’s misguided decision to sign up for the armed forces, while ‘Christmas Time This Year’ laces a jaunty Polka with dark, savage humour:

Everybody stand up tall and cheer
Our children will be coming home in plastic bags I fear
Then we’ll know it’s Christmas time this year

Cooder provides a hilarious and convincing impersonation of the blues singer on ‘John Lee Hooker for President’, which imagines Hooker’s manifesto for the White House:

I want everybody to know I’m strictly copastatic, I ain’t Republican or Democratic. I got a new program for the nation. It’s gonna be groove time, a big sensation. Every man and woman gets one scotch, one bourbon and one beer, three times a day if they stay cool. Little chillens gets milk, cream and alcohol, two times a day if they stay involved in school. Now boogie chillen.

In an essay on the website of Nonesuch, Ry Cooder’s record label, Lynell George writes:

A succession of world-altering events scrolled across our collective screens and our consciousness the world at war, the mortgage crisis, the rollback of immigrant rights and civil liberties, the war on the environment—more than ever, it seemed, we needed to fight back, hold some one’s feet to the fire—but whose? “Fear and isolation,” he’s learned, “are the ways you keep people under control.”

His latest album, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down grew out of this information void—and the pervasive political and corporate double-speak that began swirling in its absence. Snaking through it are familiar themes—the struggle toward real democracy, the trials of the working man, the elusive goal of equality—set against the mayhem of contemporary front page news. Paired with it is Cooder’s fluent command of the rhythms and textures of American vernacular music—but bent and reshaped for this moment: “Some of this should be vivid and intense and it should roll right at you,” he says, “but it shouldn’t tire you out so you stop paying attention. I don’t think they’ll listen to this and say: ‘Hey, I wonder what was on his mind?’”

The album is a trenchant examination of power and the abuses of it. Accordingly, it’s also a measure of Cooder’s own growing sense of disaffection. “Never have I seen the Republicans be so tight-fisted as they are now. The worst of it is the chipping away of what people, by rights, ought to have, should have … the resources they deserve, pay taxes for.” […]

These 14 songs—voices from the wreckage—work as a meditation on not just the state of the union or of the world, but really the state of our hearts and minds—our priorities and values. What happened to the concept of community? Who are we behind our fences and multi-billion dollar homes? What have we—or are poised to—become? Cooder sets these questions in motion, some as “eyewitness” soliloquies, others as allegories

There are quieter moments on the album as well.  The pleasures of an uncomplicated life are extolled in the Tex-Mex ballad ‘Simple Tools’, while ‘Dreamer’ is a an unashamedly nostalgic number that begins:

I wonder would you like to meet a dreamer
Would you share a glass or two
Of red red wine and you might find
I’m a simple one like you

The final song on ‘No Hard Feelings’ has a Buddhist sensibility, taking a philosophical view and dismissing humanity as a passing annoyance, whose misdeeds are ‘just a murmur on the whispering sands of time‘ and soon forgotten:

This land should have been our land
You took it for your land
You got a use for every stream and tree
When I go up the highway old trees are dying up that way
You pump out the water and sell it back to me
You build mansions in the city, prisons in Mojave
Bet you’re quite a pillar of high society
You call it law and order I call it dirty money
You lock the young ones down or send ’em off to war
But it’s no hard feelings, no offence taken
You’re just a ripple in the shifting sands of time
No bad karma no curses on ya
You go your way I’ll go mine

You remind me of a fellow I heard of in the city
Nervous kind of fellow he loved money like you do
He derived no satisfaction so he jumped clear out the window
They tell me that he bounced a time or two
So take in mind the credo of a jackass prospector
‘Take what you need but, please, leave the rest alone
Try and live in harmony with old Mother Nature
You’ll remain in grace after you have gone’

Don’t get many callers that little road leads nowhere
Been here 40 years, seems like yesterday
There’s an old screech owl living in my chimney
I don ‘t build no fires, he keeps the mice away
No hard feelings no offence taken

No hard feelings no offence taken
You’re just a murmur on the whispering sands of time
No bad karma no curses on you
You go your way I’ll go mine

Ry Cooder with Robert Francis (left) and Hugo Arroyo in Berkeley, February 2011

Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down is an album on which Ry Cooder has reached back to his earliest recordings for musical inspiration – those songs by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Boy Blake and the rest.  In parts its songs sound like they came from the 1930s, but they tell topical stories about corruption and social inequality straight out of the America of 2011.  ‘No Banker Left Behind’ is an anthem for the Occupy camps, destined to become as much the Depression-era classic that Ry Cooder almost single-handedly resurrected from obscurity: Alfred Reed’s  ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’   Recorded on 4 December 1929 in New York City, the song told of hard times in the last Great Depression.

There was once a time when everything was cheap.
But now prices almost puts a man to sleep.
When we pay our grocery bill
We just feel like making our will.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Video from Ry Cooder & The Moula Banda Rhythm Aces: Let’s Have A Ball, a film by Les Blank recorded at The Catalyst, Santa Cruz, California on 25 March 1987 and broadcast on Channel 4.