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Chickfactor Polls 2018

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Some of the following polls did not finally appear in the print fanzine chickfactor 18.

CF: Do you remember when you first saw a copy of chickfactor? When/where was it? Tell us about it.

the first issue I saw was #12, with janet weiss and robert forster on the cover. I was impressed by the logo and design. I think this was spring 2000, maybe when chickfactor editor gail o’hara visited london and an indoor acoustic show happened in her honour in greenwich. I acquired most of the back issues that year, but never #1 and #3. I now lament that the free lollipop given away with an early issue has stickily spoiled the covers of both #2 and #6. It would probably have been safer to eat it, even if it was already 8 years old.

CF: Were you a writer or artist or contributor for chickfactor in the olden days? In what capacity? What was it like?

I have been glad to write reviews and answer questions for every issue since 2000, from issue 13 – which probably means I missed the true olden days of the 1990s, but I have a cherished store of back issues from that era also. I am always delighted to be in the magazine, but the print is so small and there are so many hundreds of items that one’s own contributions are rather a needle in a haystack. I also appeared twice on the cd all’s fair in love and chickfactor. come to think of it, the pines song ‘kisses & fog’ was written (by pamela berry; I just made up some riffs) and recorded specifically for that compilation, one summer evening above trafalgar road.

CF: Did you ever stay with Pam in D.C. or Gail in NYC in the olden days? Discuss.

I stayed with gail in nyc in january 2001. it was the first time I had been to the usa since I was a teen, and I was fortunate to return and begin to know the city properly in the company of people who seemed its most accomplished denizens. the world of east 19th street, gramercy park, murray hill, were a dreamy new streetscape of snow and ice. ld begthol took me to the top of the world trade center. dudley klute and I played psychedelic furs songs on his under-used acoustic guitar.

CF: What chickfactor parties do you remember attending? What were they like? Who played? 

pamela berry’s parties were the best I had ever attended, not least the epic on 31.12.1999 a couple of miles down the road from the famous farrago at the millennium dome – but if we don’t mean those, but actual concerts, then I played at them with the pines at bush hall in 2002, 2003, and in artisphere, dc, and bell house, nyc, in 2012; and attended a concert in 2004 and the 25th anniversary show with the softies in 2017. bush hall had a chandeliered glamour that suited the magazine. it always looked so much bigger looking out from the stage than it did from the audience. artisphere was wonderfully cavernous, a state of the art popcraft hangar. we drank new varieties of brooklyn ale from the backstage ice bucket, until (so it was said) frankie rose’s entourage ran off with it all. it was tremendous how a specific catchment area’s worth of people came to each us show, and I thus met people I’d only ever known at a great distance. bell house was the best show the pines ever played; supporting the softies was a particular privilege. and a precious memory is standing on the sidewalk outside bell house, on a sunlit early evening in April, rehearsing a spontaneous crash cover with ld begthol and a band that he’d suddenly thrown together.

CF: Was/is chickfactor a scene?

I always think roland barthes said it best. ‘if scenes have such a repercussion for him, it is because they lay bare the cancer of language. language is impotent to close language – that is what the scene says: the retorts engender one another, without any possible conclusion, save that of murder; and it is because the scene is entirely bent on, aims toward this ultimate violence, which nonetheless it never assumes (at least among “civilized” people), that it is an essential violence, a violence which delights in sustaining itself: terrible and ridiculous, like some sort of science-fiction homeostat’.

CF: Was/is chickfactor a community? 

it could help us to imagine one.

CF: Did you discover any artists while reading chickfactor zine? If so, which ones?

the answer sounds too obvious to be true, but I’d say the magnetic fields – I wasn’t literally introduced by reading chickfactor, but it was the people I knew in the chickfactor, um, scene (or, uh, community) who helped the group make sense to me, and reading issues of the magazine then helped me to understand the history.

CF: How has your musical discovery process changed for you since the golden age of chickfactor?

I’ve gone from listening to radio 1 to listening to radio 2 to listening to bbc 6music. the same disc jockeys eventually turn up on all three, and steve lamacq is still playing mega city four and kingmaker.

CF: is there a chickfactor musical aesthetic? Describe.

sylvie vartan singing a bacharach & david song on the copacabana beach. guitar: alasdair maclean.

CF: Did you meet any people at a chickfactor show that you are still friends with?

on the road for chickfactor 20 in 2012, it was an extraordinary pleasure and privilege to meet people around washington dc and new york whom I might have heard of for years, but had never met. almost everyone in america who had ever been in a band with pamela berry seemed to turn up at some point, and they were all delightful, complimentary, supportive. I am still touched to think of the kindness and friendliness of these people, and just how many of them there were. heck, the guitarist from glo-worm, a band I revere, even lent me a black & white electric guitar, which I soon took out of tune.

CF: Did you meet your BFF or a partner or spouse? Discuss. 

one night at bell house I met up with michael grace, jr, the songwriter of the band my favorite. we’d been corresponding for a while, and to meet him properly was a significant, touching moment for me. he’s like the morose warholian wilde of his long island generation. he’s not my spouse yet.

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CF: What other zines were you reading over the past 25 years? Do zines still exist now?

from 1998 to 2000 a fanzine called papercuts ran in london, partly inspired by chickfactor. it covered pop, but also literature, film, life; it was a remarkably accomplished metropolitan collage of voices and themes. it should get its own exhibition at the british library. in 2008 my friend amy produced a fanzine called wrap your troubles in dreams – and I’m still fond of it. it strikes me that these zines are both fragile emblems of wider eras: respectively, the london scene that formed around early b&s fandom, and the indiepop revival of the late 2000s. these zines burn brightly for a short time and might not seem worth the candle – but they leave their unique lights in our memories.

CF: How do you find out about music now?

I hear it between lauren laverne talking about her desert island disco and stuart maconie asking people to send in ideas for pies that sound like pop stars. or I hear about it from people I know and nod gratefully.

CF: Did you write for chickfactor under a pseudonym? Tell us more.

like the great irish humorist myles na gcopaleen, I was using pen names when it was neither profitable nor popular; but in chickfactor I have always appeared under my real name, joe pines / foxgloves.

CF: Did you ever read anything in chickfactor that made you laugh out loud?

‘chickfactor: you’re the king of indie.

stephin merritt: according to whom?

chickfactor: chickfactor.

stephin merritt: oh. It’s nice to be the king of something. Is that like being king of garbage?’

(cf #10)

CF: What about chickfactor would you have changed?

more frequent interviews with lloyd cole. 

CF: How was chickfactor different from other publications?

smaller typeface. one-line reviews. pages, like this one, full of diverse people’s answers to a question: such an immensely readable format, it’s remarkable that no one else uses it.

CF: Does chickfactor have a legacy? What is it? 

we are still living it.

CF: What are you doing in 2018 to make the world better?

donating to ecological campaigns. doing as my trade union asks. working locally for a labour party led by jeremy corbyn mp. buying drinks. making risotto. playing 12-string guitar.

CF: Who are the titans of chickfactor?

gail o’hara. pamela berry. stephin merritt. I don’t think I ever met the cartoonist, but probably him too.

CF: Is indiepop still relevant? How does it fit into your lifestyle?

it’s as relevant as shakespeare and as indispensable as lorrie moore. I don’t want a lifestyle without any of these things.

CF: What are some of your favorite indie zines, websites, labels and bands?

with the historical retrospect it’s lately received, sarah records now seems more clearly the single most exemplary label, but collecting its products would make premier league soccer look like a cheap hobby. I’m grateful to the labels I’ve been involved with: among others, matinee, foxyboy, cloudberry, annika, kleine untergrund, enchanté.

CF: Add any other relevant CF-related tales here:

I admired gail o’hara’s film strange powers, and I’m glad that she was the one to make it. at the after-screening party at the bfi, I asked stephin merritt about his reading of james joyce’s ulysses and whether he would consider it an instance of literary formalism. he replied: “that would presuppose that you had agreed on a definition of … formalism.”

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Chickfactor Reviews 2018

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LONG PLAYERS

the bv’s: speaking from a distance (kleine untergrund schallplatten, 2017) / the bv’s have become a band: I had the fortune to witness their second live performance, and they were staggeringly precise and powerful after a mere day’s rehearsal. but before that, this debut lp was the work of two songwriters from cornwall and bavaria who’d met by chance, co-written a dozen songs and recorded them on apple’s entry-level software, garageband. the recordings might have been mere demos, but kleine untergrund’s ronny pinkau, on a mission to rekindle an idealized memory of sarah records, heard all the mystery he needed and insisted that this was the finished record. generically it’s indiepop (loose, offhand, coyly cooing over reverby arpeggios) plus shoegaze (gauze, haze, atmosphere): but this cosmopolitan collaboration is too alchemical to be just generic. the bv’s can essay winsome pop as if it had never been done it before (‘you went to new york / but the architecture made you bored’), then sail us through long mesmeric minutes of circling guitar voyage. they sound like a rainy day, grey clouds beyond the water drifting down the window pane. it’s so casually sketched, yet shows such musical intuition and retains such enigmatic depth. it feels like the most important debut I’ve heard in years. joe

alvvays: antisocialites (transgressive records, 2017) / I listen to a lot of radio, and one of the medium’s purest pleasures in 2017 was hearing an alvvays track begin, shimmering out of the ending of the previous record or a fading station jingle. even the stately cruise of ‘dreams tonite’ was beaten by the follow-up ‘not my baby’: hesitant guitar figures flickering silver in the dark, then chattering into place as voice and rhythm take off. to encounter these marvels on air suggested, say, the bright grace of strawberry switchblade following a daytime news report three decades earlier. on their lp, alvvays occasionally – ‘your type’, ‘lollipop’ – play true-blooded twee pop in shop assistants or heavenly vein: tom-toms and cheerful galloping. but more typically they aspire to something glossier, a neon sign rather than an old cassette, and recall the sleek and synthesized scandi-textures of the radio dept or, in particular, club 8, with added arpeggios decorating a misty wall of sound. joe

LIVE

the magnetic fields: 50 song memoir live at the barbican, london, september 2017 / 16 years after bringing the 69 consecutive love songs to London, stephin merritt has another opus to perform, 25 songs per night. what an undertaking, with two utterly different sets and so many idiosyncratic  arrangements to rehearse and remember. merritt perches in an elaborately decorated cabin, stage front: its walls protect his ears, they say, while other musicians are ranged discreetly around the stage. the set list can’t surprise, but some dynamism is added by a screen showing animated illustrations for each song: effectively another 50-part work of art in itself. for my money the memoir improves as it goes, and the live version accentuates this effect. night one gets to close with a series of highlights (‘why I failed ethics’, ‘ethan frome’ and the climactic, majestically oblique ‘dreaming in tetris’), and night two, starting with ‘the day I finally…’, offers a new experiment in procedural aesthetics with merritt an extraordinary one-man band and pinky weitzman interjecting a fresh joke. there remain the sumptuous ‘lovers’ lies’, the delicate crowd-pleaser ‘have you seen it in the snow?’ with manhattan streets and subway trains projected above the band, or ‘you can never go back to new york’ with a whizzing cartoon of the city map. when merritt reaches ‘I wish I had pictures’ you could almost think he’s never been so profoundly poignant, then reflect that only he would be so polymorphously perverse as to follow it with the bathos of ‘somebody’s fetish’. joe

slowdive at the roundhouse, london, october 2017 / it’s becoming hard to remember now, but slowdive were unfashionable for 20 years: somehow they seemed the most ridiculed of major shoegaze acts, as prone as anyone to the vague, fey and portentous. but patience has spectacularly restored their status: by being away, then coming back, they’ve become legends at last. the roundhouse has become a shoegaze revival venue: I saw ride here in 2015, lush in 2016, and now slowdive, like those bands, make not just a nostalgia-tour return but creditable new music. songs from the 2017 lp – ‘star roving’, ‘sugar for the pill’ – are the most warmly greeted tonight: a major creative achievement, given that half the audience associates ‘catch the breeze’ or ‘alison’ with halcyon university years. as with their peers, it’s not just that slowdive can still play at all in their mid-40s (this may deserve more credit than it usually gets), but that they’re probably better than before, presumably with more advanced sonic technology too. when rachel goswell trills ‘don’t know why’ over tinkling shards of music, renewing the hallowed pop tradition of sounding akin to the cocteau twins, it might be as good as anything they’ve done, and I don’t really recall if it’s old or new. it’s new. joe

BOOK

johnny marr: set the boy free (century, 2017) / the musical model for hundreds of us for decades now, he also earns grateful admiration for maturing with dignity, without relinquishing his love of music or the political principles he started with: so 400 pages of his own words are a terrific gift. as though inverting morrissey, marr writes with ingenuous plainness: short simple sentences, statements of fact, brushing off slights and making light of complications. he says more about modest mouse than some will need, but offers 150 pages on the smiths, and more than most music documentaries he’s ready to tell us about the music. we see songs emerge before they’re named, and can only guess what they’ll become: ‘something that sounded optimistic’ turns out to be ‘this charming man’, and the creation of ‘how soon is now?’ is dramatised in full. the heart of the story remains discreetly guarded, as though marr is maintaining a pact never to malign his most famous partner: but if he politely withholds something, he still gives a lot. joe

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Troxy Music

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Belle & Sebastian, The Troxy, Limehouse, Friday 16th March 2018

Nobody’s Empire
I’m a Cuckoo
Show Me the Sun
Expectations
Step Into My Office, Baby
Sweet Dew Lee
Electronic Renaissance
Piazza, New York Catcher
I’ll Be Your Pilot
The Same Star
Stay Loose
Play for Today
Sukie in the Graveyard
The Boy With the Arab Strap
I Didn’t See It Coming
Judy and the Dream of Horses

Encore:
The Party Line
Lazy Line Painter Jane

**

Stevie T in the craft ale bar down the road: so crowded it takes 15 minutes to get a pint. Under the bright light of a fried chicken shop counter I hear about the Champions’ League quarter-final draw: Liverpool vs Manchester City.

The Troxy: an old cinema; don’t know if its name was a parody or derivation of Roxy; pictures of Monroe or Carole Lombard on the walls. Cavernous place: Stevie says it’s like Brixton Academy, but nice. I think of Shepherd’s Bush Empire: where I first saw B&S, 1.9.1998. After the 45-minute delay coming on stage, Andy Dean stood beside me and named all the members: I found this very generous of him.

Big crowd, and on only the first of two nights. Surprising number of people maintaining the indiepop fashion idea in the most simplistic way by wearing stripes.

Belfast Bob, we think, lifts the concert somewhat with his rock music stylings and approach.

New songs, unfamiliar to me: ‘Show Me The Sun’, ‘Sweet Dew Lee’, ‘I’ll Be Your Pilot’, ‘The Same Star’. Unsure these will ever be greeted as old favourites.

Keytar for ‘Electronic Renaissance’.

I’m reminded what a good song, track, arrangement ‘Stay Loose’ is. The melody, the number of sections it moves through, the solos, mysterious achievement of the 1980 sound that in Summer 2003 people tried to pin down on this or that New Wave band.

‘Sukie in the Graveyard’ is not a great song but it is a high point, because Stuart Murdoch gets two chicks on stage in his self-indulgent way, and one of them in particular dances with remarkable energy, joy and invention, weaving around behind the band and bringing everything up. I marvel that she’s just an ordinary person; Stevie says she’s probably a ringer.

A woman from Belfast bawls at Stevie: I’m unsure if she’s complaining about the band or the audience.

‘I Didn’t See It Coming’ is a highlight of late B&S but they don’t play one of my favourite elements of it: the overlapping coda with Martin singing ‘Take me on a trip cos I’m not lying’ to a different melody.

‘Judy and the Dream of Horses’ seems like it should be a rarity, an extraordinary dip back into a forgotten twee past, but they’ve played it many times that I’ve seen them.

Murdoch’s clambering up along the balcony prompts thought about security: always that ambiguity over whether security are with or against the performer; paid to keep him safe and to prevent any expensive insurance claims, yet also implicitly in conflict with his dangerous desire to roam.

I wonder who’s going to sing Monica Queen’s part on ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’. Murdoch does.

 

 

Don’t Check Me Out

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14th March 2018: I go to see The Pains of Being Pure at Heart at the 02 Academy Islington. A showy commercial name for a dark hall, all standing, a bar on each side selling below average lager expensively; in the middle of a minor shopping centre off Upper Street that I fancy as part of Stevenage or Harlow. Next door to the venue I eat chicken broth and drink a bottle of Japanese lager, feeling like I’m in an airport. I climb stairs and find a cinema-style sign saying entry back downstairs. The stairs and corridors of the venue are chill and unhomely. The venue doesn’t seem packed: unlike the basement of the Betsey Trotwood where I saw the Pains in February 2008, or the Buffalo Bar the same month. Those seem days of abandon. That venue’s gone; the Betsey still lives, and seems smaller than ever when I occasionally return to it.

With a borrowed acoustic guitar I kicked off the first night of NYC Popfest 2008 at Cake Shop, Ludlow Street, and said I’d been thinking about being the opening act: wondering who was the opening act for Woodstock … probably Country Joe and the Fish, PF Sloan or … Jerry and the Pacemakers, the last raising a laugh. I guess that’s what I am to the Pains of being Pure at Heart’s Jimi Hendrix Experience … This statement was meant to be self-deprecating, but may still have been unintentionally too self-aggrandising. Somehow I managed to miss the Pains playing that festival: I think I was at drinks at Boxcar Lounge on the Lower East Side. So the third time I saw the Pains must have been at Cargo at Old Street, one June night in 2009. That must have been the tour for the first LP (the 2008 shows must have been well before the first LP, though I loosely associate them with it). The Pains already felt established then: that was a big crowd. Yet that was 9 years ago, 9 of the 10 than have passed. Time has moved strangely in this decade since the indiepop revival, which is probably mainly to say the familiar thing: it’s moved faster and faster and left many things behind.

Fourth time around, ten years on. I look at the audience. A relatively high proportion of Japanese maybe, reflecting the Pains’ Japanese tour popularity. Some people with striking, solemn looks; a gay couple with the defiant air of the 1980s; fewer twee cuties, which once seemed the Pains’ prime audience. Much of the audience, like me, inevitably has aged with the band. I see no one I know: not the part-time promoter I knew who hosted them in the mid-West; not the other who staged that first Betsey show; not the burly and chunky indie record label blokes. It’s OK: I can be alone, drink lager at the front crash barrier, read the LRB, risk my right ear to the speaker stack. The support I see is Marnie: ex-Ladytron singer, mid-Atlantic voice, long-legged in shorts, with another woman providing all the music on guitar or keyboards and the sense of a lot of programming going on. Marnie’s tote bags cost £10. The Pains tune guitars visibly in front of us before their set: a disarming approach that typifies their night. Then they come back to play:

My Only / Heart In Your Heartbreak / The Body / Simple and Sure / Anymore / Higher Than The Stars / Come Saturday / A Teenager In Love / Eurydice / When I Dance With You / Until The Sun Explodes / Young Adult Friction / Everything With You / The Pains of Being Pure at Heart / Encore: Suzanne (Leonard Cohen) / Kelly / This Love Is Fucking Right! / Belong

19 songs total, longer than some other shows on the tour I think. Most songs from the debut LP (2009); then from the last but one, Days of Abandon; then from new LP The Echo of Pleasure and 2nd LP Belong – and ‘Higher than the Stars’ a 45 from 2009 that sounds as good as almost anything tonight.

Rhythm guitar and flurries of motion; not so much subtle lead playing is audible. Kip Berman’s guitar seems mixed too low even for his explosive solos to combust audibly. Better are some cool 1980s keyboards from the slender bespectacled young woman above me. This isn’t the place to talk about the songs in detail, but one thing the set does prompt me to think is: if I had a general criticism of the Pains it would be the repeated simplicity of their structures: if it starts in D, it’ll go into G … 4 times, and on the 5th D the vocals start as the music drops back … I know such arrangements are intuitive and such basic changes essential, but I would think they would have worked around them more by now. But the band’s songwriting puzzles me slightly, in general, in moving in and out of subtle ideas and banal ones; the latter have often sounded like a bid for soundtrack / stadium appeal. In fact on the later records I’m not sure whether I’m interpreting the apparent banality correctly, or whether it’s part of a bigger synth-loaded pastiche.

After a few songs Kip Berman talks, coughs in a way he doesn’t when singing, says let’s just play some more music. When he talks again he says it’s the last night of the tour and there is no place better for that than London: so many friends here, he names a few, cites the first time they ever played here at the Betsey Trotwood 10 years ago. It means a lot, Berman says in his sheepish unstarry way, because we probably won’t get to do this many more times. That’s the most poignant line of the night, more than anything he sings. The acknowledgement of finitude makes farewell tours meaningful, but bands aren’t supposed to do it unless they’re actually, officially finishing. In quite literal terms, not many more times could just mean, say, 5 times, over another 10 years, and the end might not even be in sight yet. But the implication feels more solemn than that. I wonder if he’s saying that the financial returns are diminishing so it won’t be practically possible to keep bringing a band overseas; if he needs to focus more on steadier income to help bring up his family; if he’s just feeling he’s been doing it too long and it’ll be time to stop making this noise.

The early songs mean the more to me because I imagine hearing them live in February 2008, before I’d heard any of the records: when this was all new for Berman, as it was for me. If being hard on myself, I could ask: 10 years on, have either of us achieved what we might have hoped? Yes and no. He’s done better than I have. The journey more important than the destination, but my journey hasn’t always been the best either. And 10 years on, you don’t get to walk right back and start again.

‘Everything With You’ and ‘Come Saturday’ make me think I’ve forgotten how good that debut LP really is. How it fizzed and spilled over with energy, desire, simplicity, art, chic to cheek. The lyrics were often good then also; maybe some of them still are, but there was a realist detail that seemed to get lost on later records, as on a song that they don’t play tonight and I may never have heard them play:

Gave up books for film

Gave up film for time

Now that you’ve got none

Berman breaks a string, walks off and fetches a white Gibson: a roadie woman then brings his main Fender or whatever it is back, restrung, and he returns to it, as if it’s always his preference. The band’s title track chugs as the last song of the set: I never quite remember it but it’s the one that sounds like Nirvana covering something poppier. (Come to think of it the Pains long ago recorded ‘Kurt Cobain’s Cardigan’, and come to think of it again they released ‘I Wanna Go All The Way’ on the same CD as The Foxgloves released ‘Passing Through’.) The title song’s refrain ‘We will never die’ seems too dumb to repeat that often: it’s not just not literally true, but it’s widely agreed to be an undesirable aspiration also. So it’s ironic in some way; the song must be quoting a feeling the writer doesn’t really have. But in the context of the night’s sense of finitude, it works OK as defiance too.

Berman comes back alone to play Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ on his electric. If, like Lloyd Cole, I knew and cared more about Leonard Cohen I might yearn for a more surprising choice from his catalogue. This solo number is perhaps just to give others a break: in any case it’s effective; they could afford to leave more space in the sound, mixing it up and down more often. I hadn’t expected ‘Kelly’: it’s a thrill, with guest vocals from Jessica Weiss of Fear of Men. ‘This Love Is Fucking Right!’ is another thrill: these songs hadn’t been on earlier setlists in this tour, but notwithstanding the obscenity this may still ultimately be my favourite of their songs, and maybe it’s a lot of other people’s too. They launch ‘Belong’: I always appreciate the late bridge: ‘in the hospital, in the shopping mall …’ – it ends, and largely unannounced the whole gig ends. Kip Berman jumps off stage front and heads out to the foyer as others retreat backstage. Back in the foyer I join a little queue: he’s taking cash, unwrapping records and signing them, signing tickets otherwise. I can see the fan in him here, the DIY helper, the practical indiepopper rather than aloof rock star. I buy the £10 LP: what’s your name? he asks me like everyone, and adds a heart between mine and his. I tell him I was so touched that he mentioned the Betsey: he recalls how it was put on, heard that one of the organizers was here. He appreciates people who’ve been listening all that time. I leave the still substantial queue: maybe sales like these will let them come back one more time. I carry my vinyl LP with awkward care all the way home. I should have packed a tote bag.

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The Fairy Bells Tinkle Afar

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Greta Gerwig’s first film as a director, a high-school / coming of age film set in California in 2002-3, is called Lady Bird. The main character insists on being called this, rather than her original forename, Christine – until the end when she moves to the other side of the country and the distance sentimentally encourages her to be more accommodating to her parents and assume her old name again. The Lady Bird name seems one of numerous things in the film that feels like it should be significant, but actually doesn’t lead to anything much. I can roughly understand the adolescent desire to rename oneself to claim autonomy, but I don’t think we’re told why she took this name. It might fit loosely with her dyed pink hair: ladybirds are red, after all.

It was only the day after seeing the film that I remembered: Americans don’t even have ladybirds. They have ladybugs. So was our heroine not really referring to the insect Coccinellid at all? Or was she doing so in an Anglophilic spirit, claiming a British reference point as part of her resistance to growing up in California? That would sound plausible, except that she never refers to anything else from Britain. In the film we see her posters for a school election, illustrated with collages of a woman’s body and a bird’s. These crude ventures into Max Ernst territory were jarring for me, in showing that lady bird meant something literal – a lady and a bird – rather than the compound it means to us, which is nothing like either a lady or a bird.

The film is enjoyable, charming, very easy to watch. I was surprised by all this because I’d built up an erroneous sense of it through media hype. I knew that Saoirse Ronan played the teen lead, and that it focused on mother-daughter relations, and that Gerwig being nominated for best director was a relative rarity for a woman – so the film was talked up by some as a feminist picture. But I thought there was more to it somehow; something darker, more mysterious, more difficult.

There wasn’t any of these things! The darkest thing in the film is that Lady Bird’s father has been taking antidepressants, is made redundant, and doesn’t visibly get another job. (Not getting the one job we see him go for isn’t even that bad, because his –adopted? – son gets the job instead: which one way or another should bring money in to the household or the family.) Redundancy and poverty are serious subjects, but they don’t feel very close to home in this film – I mean, the danger from them doesn’t feel very great, as it does in a Ken Loach film (like, say … Ladybird, Ladybird). Lady Bird’s mother makes clear how big a deal they are, but she still has a job, and the sense of poverty is very relative (the family’s home is smaller and shabbier than those of Lady Bird’s friends – but they live in mansions!); and furthermore, which makes a big difference to the texture, the parents seem highly educated and thoughtful. The mother says that her own mother was an alcoholic abuser, but no one in the film is like that. No one gets into drugs (except antidepressants), or even seems unable to pay the mortgage or bring home food. So – yes, there is economic trouble, but it’s relative (taking place in the affluent capital of the richest state in the richest country in the world) and it doesn’t have much vivid dramatic effect. And that’s the extent of the darkness, trouble, struggle in this picture.

Lady Bird is an irritable, frustrated teen who goes to a Catholic high school and wants to go to college on the East Coast. Her family keep pointing out that there are other more local options; she disdains them. And then … she gets to go to college on the East Coast! So she must be really academically bright and hard-working? No, the film doesn’t show any sign of that, beyond her getting into a New York university: I can’t remember a shot of her reading a book apart from A People’s History of the United States, which she takes up in emulation of the anarchist boy she’s attracted to. So what’s the rest of her life like: I bet she’s victimised by teachers? … No, they’re quite nice to her, never punishing her for cheating on her maths score (and thus massively disrupting the maths class); even when she spray-paints the nuns’ vehicle, a nun tells her it’s fine because it was funny. But I bet Lady Bird has some trouble with ‘mean girls’ at school, is ostracized by popular kids and made to feel like a misfit, a real Ally Sheedy weirdo?… No, she makes friends with the most popular girl at school; this does lead to tension with her truer friend, an overweight Latina girl called Julie, but that’s not explored at any length, and Julie welcomes her back and immediately goes to the Prom with her at the end. She gets to go to a Thanksgiving party at a house she’s already admired, then goes straight on to a cool local punk gig. She gets to hang out with virtually anyone she likes, and is virtually never criticized, insulted, demeaned or attacked by anyone. And then, without having visibly studied anything much, she gets to go to the college of her choice. Life is great! Also, at a time when so much talk is of diversity, I think I was surprised to see someone with such mainstream, widely desired qualities succeed: she’s young, tall, white, American, able-bodied, slim, beautiful, heterosexual, (relatively) smart, popular, and successful in almost everything she attempts. I suppose Greta Gerwig was these things too.

The curious lack of struggle and friction is paralleled in the treatment of place. The film makes a big deal about being set in Sacramento. It’s referred to frequently; late on, a lot of beautiful shots of it appear; Gerwig has talked of how important the place is to her and how much she wanted to show it on film. In the film Sacramento seemed to mean primarily something like ‘suburban, safe, boring’ – hence Lady Bird’s desire to go to New York (understandable but a pretty standard destination for anyone wanting to see the bright lights). But this whole spatial opposition didn’t have much drive for me because Sacramento doesn’t look boring in the film: it looks perpetually sunny, comfortable, glamorous and beautiful. That must be partly because Gerwig wanted it to look that way anyway – so her desire as a director is contradicting the attitude of the character, which is OK in theory but stops me as a viewer from grasping or empathising with what drives the character.

This place issue is partly a familiar UK / US issue. That is, almost anywhere in the US looks glamorous, in a certain way, from the UK. Baltimore; Akron; Jersey City; Lincoln, Nebraska; they would all look thrilling on film to me. Maybe to a US viewer the Sacramento of the film does look dull and unappealing? I’m not sure. If not, don’t they too have the problem of not being able to sympathise with Lady Bird’s desire for escape? I wonder what the UK equivalent would be: not somewhere actually downtrodden like Hartlepool or Newport, that you could legitimately want to escape because of its poverty while retaining a sentimental love of it. More like a Home Counties town – Guildford? Chichester? Winchester? Well, imagine a film about Winchester, beautifully shot by someone who wanted to show how lovely Winchester was … and imagine a US viewer seeing it … They wouldn’t be likely to think Yea, I can understand how desperate she was to get away from that place!

I actually really enjoyed this film, because it was simple and bright. And its script is full of sharp exchanges and humour. I just find the creation of a film so lacking in tension, struggle and conflict to be almost an accidental experimental strategy in itself.

 

The North

North

21st January 2014

about 7 meandering months after I started it I have finished Paul Morley’s The North (And Almost Everything In It) (2013).

In some evident ways the book does not live up to its title (Bobby Robson is not even in the index, though Roland Barthes and Lou Reed are), in others the book partly rehashes a brilliant book Morley has written before (which makes it feel moving and thrilling when near the end of this book he reaches that one and starts talking about this one as a prequel to it), in others it is a new thing he had never done before but by that token is in ways more dutifully solid and less interesting than one or I would expect him to be, and at the same time it is frankly disappointing that every brick of historical solidity appears, by his own profession, to have come from the internet.

Then again it still contains clauses, sentences, sometimes paragraphs or pages that no one else could have written (unless they were taking the trouble to write a very good Paul Morley pastiche), and as it reaches its end (the last pages, the last paragraph, the last drop of rain and a litany of last Lancastrian things) it becomes not so much exhilarating as desperately moving or nerverackingly intense.

In some ways it is probably somewhat better than for instance the first report 7 mazy months ago of Stevie T might have led me to think though I would never have read it or even thought about it in the first place if he hadn’t at some time much longer ago led me to the vicinity of where it was being constructed.

By the time I read the 4 pages of Acknowledgements I felt so long committed, so immersed in the journey of this book that it was as though I was reading the Acknowledgements to a book I’d written myself, which would be convenient, what with one thing and another.

I’m quite glad I finished this book. I read it pretty closely.

 

The light goes green

Bruce.jpg

1. I have long had an idea of Bruce Springsteen as some kind of writer – a writer of prose, I mean, as well as songs. Years ago on a music messageboard I started a thread for people to imagine what he would write. I said he would be ‘Kerouacian –  romantic, restless, with an obtrusive authorial presence – and at some stage would actually write a sentence like: “Meanwhile, out there, my America sleeps, beyond the stop-lights that flicker as the great trucks fly back and forth, beyond the barbed wire that can’t stop Pablo and Angela for ever, because the land is for dreamers …”’. ‘but trucks don’t fly’, a friend commented: ‘you are surely thinking of spaceships’.

            I don’t think my brief pastiche looks that good now, but I think my basic intuition was proved correct when Springsteen published his 500-page memoir, and I was quite tickled to find that he often writes the way I’d imagined, but better.

2. The rock or pop memoir as a major contemporary genre: in part it’s a response to the loss of revenue from record sales, with bookselling now looking a comparatively more reliable way to get people to pay £15 for something – though the idea of publishing as commercially sound probably looks foolish itself to some people in publishing. Still, more big pop names seem to have produced a major recent work than not. I come across them unexpectedly: I cherish Bob Dylan’s Chronicles (2004) and appreciate Johnny Marr’s Set the Boy Free (2016), but I hardly knew that Pete Townshend had written a magnum opus, Who I Am (2012), till I happened on it in a local library. There is also a shelf’s worth of such memoirs by women artists who often consciously write with, or against, a sense of marginalization: Tracey Thorn, Viv Albertine, Kim Gordon. In truth, I’ve only read one or two of all these books – but I still imagine that Bruce Springsteen’s is one of the best; that he is more a born writer than most musicians; that more of the spark in his pages came from him than from someone else hired to tidy it up.

3. Born to Run might seem the ideal title for someone at a distance: a phrase you associate with the Boss, summing him up. But though I’m used to it now, from first hearing I thought it a very bad title, simply because it already belonged to one of the most major works by the same author as the book. It’s as though Morrissey’s autobiography were called Hatful of Hollow, Dylan’s Bringing it All Back Home. I want to exclaim: B-but you can’t just use the same title! … That title belongs to that other thing you already did! Does the crossing from one medium to another make all the difference?

4. I like the design of the book: its heft, its truly brick-like hardback character, its cover image of a quite youthful Bruce leaning on a car (either acknowledging, or failing to understand or be bothered by, the stereotype of ‘Gars & Girls’), the boards of the house across the road, the drifts of snow around him in the monochrome photograph that stretches across the back cover, the businesslike lean white lettering of his name on the spine cutting across the shades of grey while belonging with them.

5. The internal construction of the volume: three ‘books’: ‘Growin’ Up’, ‘Born To Run’, ‘Living Proof’. Each of them contains over 20 chapters, for a total of 79 plus Foreword and Epilogue. So there’s another ‘Born to Run’ inside Born to Run! Should I replay my previous complaint and say: you can’t use that title again for a ‘book’ inside the book, when the book is already called Born to Run? Maybe not: after all, the LP Born to Run has a track on it called ‘Born to Run’: this kind of molecular echo of part and whole seems to be OK. But guess what the first chapter of ‘Book Two: Born to Run’ is called? … ‘Born to Run’! He sure is determined to get all the mileage he can out of this title, over 40 years since coining it.

6. It makes sense to have a ‘Born to Run’ chapter, though, as the italics signify the LP title, and these titles also get chapters to themselves: The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle; Darkness on the Edge of Town; The River; Nebraska; Born in the USA; Tunnel of Love; The Ghost of Tom Joad; The Rising; Magic; Wrecking Ball; High Hopes. I like this: it lets the reader find the LPs; brings drama as the new chapter with its LP title begins (I was thrilled when I turned a page and saw Born in the USA!); and suggests that the Boss himself partially measures out his own life with them. Why wouldn’t he?

7. 3 books, 79 chapters – but also, within those, further subvisions! A 5-page chapter entitled ‘Clarence Clemons’ includes two further sections: ‘The Emperor of E Street’ and ‘Heat of the Night’. The 10-page chapter ‘Tunnel of Love’ includes four: ‘‘88’, ‘Around the World in Forty-Two Days’, ‘Home Again’ (a single paragraph!), and ‘Adjustment’. What to conclude of all this division? First that it represents a certain lack of discipline from the writer: he couldn’t stick to a very clear and agreed pattern of subvisions, but produced fragments along the way, digressed into brief asides which were given their own titles despite hardly meriting them. Second, far better this kind of explicit organization of material than a mere undifferentiated prose ramble. With no titles, the book would be much harder to get the measure of. Third, their proliferation bespeaks a kind of creative energy: to come up with so many! Creative energy is one thing with which Bruce Springsteen is conventionally associated, even if it just means playing longer concerts than everyone else.

8. His writing moves between tones. The bar-band leader bashes out block capital letters to convey the adventure of a risky gig, or a memory like this:

We played, they paid us. How sweet it is. We trucked back into Jersey as the conquering heroes and for proof we had … our … our … REVIEW! We had been recognized by a big-time newspaper music critic as Jersey badasses gone to teach those West Coast sissy boys something about THE ROCK! (139)

But he can also be more intense, dispensing a solemn monologue of life lessons:

You can move on, with a heart stronger in the places it’s been broken, create new love. You can hammer pain and trauma into a righteous sword and use it in defense of life, love, human grace and God’s blessings. But nobody gets a do-over. Nobody gets to go back and there’s only one road out. Ahead, into the dark. (297)

He does this very well – as well as any rock star could do, I think. He has retained an earnestness most don’t, which allows him to make these perorations with sincerity – while also maintaining a healthy sense of scepticism and self-mockery. The very first page is exemplary in that regard: ‘I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I’ (xi). It’s a terrifically sly, complicating way to start a memoir in which people will be looking for the truth behind the art, and a finely intelligent framing of a career often associated, for good or ill, with a notion of authenticity. For the author of ‘Nebraska’ and ‘Born to Run’ to talk of his ‘magic trick’ which ‘begins with a set up’ (xii) shows a refreshing, challenging self-awareness. Yet all this doesn’t dispel the earnestness: they coexist in a rich sensibility that can avoid both simple-minded naivety and corrosive cynicism. After 500 pages he has earned the right to his moving Afterword, like an encore upon encores, describing his motorcycle ride home with ambitious delicacy:

The light goes green and the road stirs and rumbles beneath me as I pop over small sections of highway that have expanded in the summer heat, then cooled, leaving irregular ridges, sequential speed bumps where sections of asphalt meet (507).

Again, how many musicians could pull this off? As he limns ‘a stream of headlights as commuter cars holding their day travelers flash by inches from my left handle grip’ (507), I realize that he’s blasted far through the roof of my old pastiche, on a last-chance power drive.