Thursday, January 31, 2008

Beadle: No longer about

You may remember him as that smug git on all those rotten 80s tv shows, but something less well known about Jeremy Beadle is that as organiser of the Bickershaw Festival in 1972 he was resonsible for bringing Captain Beefheart to the UK for the first time. Because of this, I can forgive him for Henry Kelly.

Addendum: The internet throws up some strange connections. Henry Kelly went on from Game for a Laugh to present seminal daytime Euro-quiz Going for Gold, essential viewing for all students and unemployed layabouts in the early 90s, whose cheesy, yet indelibly etched onto my mind, theme song was written by the bloke who went on to score Ridley Scott's Gladiator.

Here's Johnny

Johnny Hicklenton drew some of the most distinctive, visceral, and plain old bizarre art you could hope to have seen in the pages of 2000ad in the late 80s and early 90s. At a time when the entire industry seemed to be in the grip of Bisley clones churning out brown painted art, he stood out as someone doing something utterly unlike anything else around, and there's still really no-one quite like him.
Johnny's also got Multiple Sclerosis, and can't walk anymore. Fortunately he can still draw, but he knows it's a matter of time before that's taken from him too.
Fortunately Johnny's too much of a fighter to sit back and accept this, and one of the ways he's fightiong back against this horrible disease is by working with Animal Monday to make a film about his condition, "Here's Johnny", the first screening of which I attended last night at the Science Museum's Dana Centre. It's a powerful piece that pulls no punches in letting you know what the (often uncomforatbly personal) effects of multiple sclerosis are, not just physically but pstychologically. This coukld make for uncomfortable viewing, but it transcends the awfulnes of its subject matter simply by the fact that Johnny's such an irrepressible, tenacious and funny man. It's being screened at Sight and Sound in Austen next month, whether or not it gets a cinema release remains to be seen, but as channel 4 have part-funded its making it'll doubtless be coming to a tv screen soon, and you really should keep an eye out for it and make sure you see it, because it's a provocative and thoughtful piece of film-making, the sort of thing you used to see all the time on Channel 4 before they gave themselves over to Wife Swap and Big Brother.
There's an interview with Johnny here.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Robyn Hitchcock / Rasputina (Queen ElizabethHall)

One of the things about getting older is that your faculties, contrary to what you might expect, appear to disappear suddenly rather than just slowly, imperceptibly fading away. So I find that my memory has deteriorated rapidly over the last few years, and while I've always found it much easier to recognise a piece of music than name it, at this stage any connection between notes and titles seems as tenuous as it can be. This is why I never speak of such things as set lists. So you may, if it amuses you, take these posts as an essay in the foothills of senility.

Anyway, the Queen Elizabeth Hall in front of an audience who are mostly waiting for someone else who they've actually heard of to come on is of course a very different proposition to headlining at the Windmill, and Rasputina seemed at first here to be pursuing their more explicitly "chamber" side at first, easy on the pedals and steady on the tempi, less of the banter. Something seems to gel when "Saline the Salt Lake Queen" appears and I think by the end they won over some of the unconverted at least. It was a good performance, although it was never going to be quite as special as standing mere inches from the band in a small room. The two audiences remind me of the two Londons; one intimate, friendly, eager; the other cosmopolitan, standoffish, reserved. They're a great band, as individual in their way as is the headliner, and I hope they'll be back on these shores before very long, and welcomed by an increasing crowd (although a selfish part of me would like that crowd to be small enough to fit in the back of a pub).

Robyn Hitchcock's probably better in a pub too, but as I haven't seen him in that context I've no way of making the comparison. He's on home turf, of course, and playing to a crowd who have paid to see him, and playing an old favourite of an album, and he's got them in the palm of his hand, and can banter til the cows come home, and does. It's a relaxed set, and doesn't seem anything like the 90-odd minutes it transpires it took once I emerge into the foyer and look at my watch.

I could mention Syd Barrett and Vivian Stanshall and that whole pantheon of English eccentrics and surrealists he belongs to, that stretches back way beyond Dali and his ilk to the real origins of surrealism, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. But building up a legend isn't really what he's about. it's mostly quiet, unassuming music that doesn't need to declare its worth, and is all the more affecting for it. There's a simple joy that's easy to hear, much harder to put across effectively, the art that's all the more artful for its apparent artlessness.

Addendum: a man like Robyn H attracts a certain level of punter, among those present was none other than Nick Lowe. And Adam from TV's Adam and Joe. Which is quite exciting. But not as exciting as Nick Lowe. Sorry, Adam.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Between thought and expression


In between two concerts of cranked-up cellos, here's something quiet, as silence always hovers between the notes: an excellent essay on Morton Feldman by Kyle Gann.

Rasputina (Windmill, Brixton)

I've been waiting a long time for this one. Not as long as the girl who ended up rammed next to me (in the nicest possible way) comparing notes on our favourite Rasputina albums, who'd been waiting ten years to see them live. I've only been waiting about five. But it's quite long enough.

First, though, we have rayOn (eccentric typography preserved here, I've got a soft spot for that sort of thing). They start off lively, but before the first song is over the guitarist's broken a string. They do what has to be done: make a bad pun about their "rocky" start and play a slow number to give him a chance to replace it (although it'd have been more fun to make do with five strings. After all, George Formby managed with four). I like this band. Back in Birmingham we have a grand tradition of fabric-monikered bands (Felt, Denim*) which immediately warms me to them, and they play a fun set. They're not going to set the world alight, but they look a bit long in the tooth to be seriously entertaining thoughts of rock 'n' roll stardom, and you know what? Sometimes being a decent band in the back of a pub is enough.

As soon as they finish, a crowd of goths floats forward. It's a marvellous sight, and takes me back to the early 80s, but it does mean I can't see a damn thing. Rasputina's mainstay Melora Creager is a thoughtful soul, however, and persuades those at the front to sit on the floor so the rest of us can see them. I manage to sidle round the side so that I have a pretty good ringside view, and am only slightly in Sarah Bowman's way as she takes her cello onstage.

Rasputina really could be playing somewhere other than the back of a pub (the girl I'm next to and I are both surprised that we're seeing them here rather than the Brixton Academy, and in fact they'll be at the grander surroundings of the QueenElizabeth Hall tomorrow night, supporting Robyn Hitchcock), but I'm very glad they're here, because there's a cosiness in a small venue you'll never get anywhere bigger, and Melora's dry wit goes down well in an intimate setting like this. American bands always seem to do things like banter much better than most British groups, maybe they just have a better tradition of playing to the audience to draw on than we do. Rasputina have an arrestingly individual aesthetic, and all the bucketloads of charisma necessary to bring that to life on stage, Melora and Sarah's voices and playing perfectly attuned, Melora's between song chat is very funny, and the whole thing is ably underpinned by Jonathon's driving drumming. (Incidentally, and utterly irrelevantly, Jonathon is really, really tall. I kind of expected him to look as he does, like Alan Moore might have done if all those years ago he'd decided to research Swamp Thing by going to live on Gumbo in a Louisiana swamp, but I really wasn't prepared for his remarkable distance from the floor.) At one point They launch into a heartfelt tribute to Sir Mixalot, which touches all our hearts.

They play for a full hour, and it's a terrible wrench to have to run out as they're playing their last song in order not to miss the train home. I'll be seeing them again tomorrow in the very different environment of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and it'll be very interesting to see how they come across there.

You wait ages for a rocking cello band to come over from America, and then they do do two gigs at once. And even before the second, I'm already hoping it won't be too long before they're back here again. And if it does all come to nothing with the band (heaven forbid) Melora's got a bright alternative future in stand-up.


*Felt and Denim are arguably two manifestations of the same band, which would make this a grand tradition of one.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Scaledown, King & Queen, 25 January

Good intentions butter no parsnips, I'm told, and having determined after the last time I went to a Scaledown night to get along to another really,really soon, I find myself here, almost exactly a year later. So much later, in fact that one of the acts tonight is making a return visit to the Scaled Down world. Still, I made it eventually, and this year I'm definitely going to get along to another one in less than a year's time.

So anyway, this time we had another varied menu of sounds. It's the sort of evening where you're unlikely to like everything, but you're bound to like something, and so it proved. After the customary turn by hosts Mark Braby and Andy Coules - a unique take on "Smash it Up" by the Damned - we have some entertaining spoken word stuff from saxophonist Mark Norton, of which the funnier poems are the better, not a million miles from John Hegley territory. Next up is Dogs & Stuff, a duo who somehow put me in mind of Flight of the Conchords. They're good fun, although they make the fatal error of putting their best stuff at the start of the set, so that after a song called "Monkeys v Robots" (Monkeys! Robots! How can you go wrong?) and a song featuring the wearing of a toy octopus on the head, the rest can only seem dull in comparison. Still, I saw a man with an octopus on his head, so I am pleased.

Next up is Martin White, of whom I've spoken before, so I shall simply say that he was his usual thoroughly entertaining self, and gave us a preview of some songs from a new musical he's writing about a 19th century German flea with magic contact lenses (or something).

Hong Kong in the 60s is a trio plying a C-86/lo-fi electronica type sound, which you may find intriguingly gentle or just fey, depending on whether you like it or not. I wasn't sure at first, but I found myself warming to it fairly quickly and by the end of their set was happy to let it wash over me in its unobtrusive way. And they do good badges too, which is an important thing, I think.

Finally is John Ellis, former guitarist with the Vibrators and the Stranglers, whose pedal and ebow-driven guitar noodling just didn't really do it for me, I'm afraid (and that's mild compared to what my companion said. She really didn't like it). But it doesn't matter, because I heard plenty of stuff I did like, and had a good time. Which is of course what it's all about.

The next Scaledown's on 22nd February, and I'm going to be there, definitely, honest.

I did take pictures of everyone, by the way, it's just they didn't come out very well. It's difficult taking photos in a dark room without a flash.

By the way, the Scaledown boys have moved into the world of recording, and I picked up their first release, a lovely 7" single by a band called Pocket. Get it at the Orchestra Pit.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Och aye!

Possibly not the Burns we celebrate on Burns Night.

Happy Burns Night! Here's a poem.




To A Mouse.


On turning her up in her nest with the plough, November 1785.



Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
An' fellow mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't.

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's win's ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Great and Good

Playing Martinů's Fantaisies Symphoniques got me thinking about him, and his place in the greater scheme of things. This is partly a matter of his relative obscurity, which baffles me (as it does in the case of Nielsen), as i find it hard to understand why he's not a massively more popular or played composer. Possibly not more popular because not more played, of course, and given the timidity of much concert programming, not more played because not more popular - the perennial Catch-22.

There's a strange thing in classical music, I suppose because it leans on the past more than any other art form, of an insistence when talking about composers talking up their "genius". It's perfectly possible to talk of, say, Dickens as a great novelist while acknowledging his faults (all that sentimental Tiny Tim nonsense, for example), but we like to keep quiet about the second rate pieces Beethoven churned out amongst the jewels (such as the rotten Battle Symphony) . It's as though we're scared that if we admit any weakness in our musical gods, the entire edifice will come crashing down around our ears.

Martinů is a really good (and underrated) composer, and amazingly consistent for someone so prolific, but he's not a Great Composer. I think this is something to do with the fact that he's almost completely uninfluential (there's no "Martinů School" trailing in his wake), but also to do with an attitude, or lack of it, on his part towards his craft. He wrote well crafted, attractive and moving music, but there's never really a sense of him really trying to stamp himself onto history or change the course of his art for anyone but himself. He just tried to write good music.

This makes me stop and think, what do we really mean by a "Great Composer"? The whole idea of the Artist making a Statement begins with Beethoven (of course), which means that Bach, Haydn and Mozart (to pick only the 3 most obvious names) aren't really Great Composers, because the concept didn't exist for them. Significant, influential, great even; but not Great.

A Great Composer doesn't have to be a good composer; in fact I wonder if the two are very compatible, as it's entirely possible for a Great Composer to be a dreadful composer (Berlioz springs to mind, and Wagner - these are my prejudices, of course, you may have your own candidates for bad Great composers). even Beethoven, a Great composer who's generally also a good composer, sails pretty close to the wind - the 5th, 7th and 9th symphonies are exercises in increasing self-importance and bombast, and I maintain that after the astounding opening 30 seconds or so of the ninth, it's downhill pretty much all the way. But in the face of Greatness, quality's a secondary consideration

The line runs out almost exactly 200 years after Ludwig van, with the death of Stravinsky in 1971, and then the demise of Stockhausen at the end of last year; the Great Composer is essentially an idea of the 19th century that lingered through the 20th, and with the decline of so-called- classical music as a vital force rather than a museum, it's an idea whose time has gone. Which is not to say there aren't some great composers out there still, but are there really any Great ones?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Blind vision

Well, the concert went very well yesterday. (This bloke was a bit sniffy about it, but what does he know? He's just some bloke on the internet, and we all know what their opinions are worth.) Cadogan Hall proved to be a very convivial venue, and we'll definitely be returning there. Unlike the Queen Elizabeth Hall, unfortunately. We've played there regularly over the years, and hoped to do so this month too, but after much dogged pursuit of a date, we were told that we couldn't be guaranteed a date due to all the other things in store for January, and finally that KSO doesn't fit in with the South Bank's artistic vision, although they might consider at some point putting on some sort of festival of amateur music making, in which case we might be lucky enough to be invited to take part. Pretty much told to bugger off and stop bothering them, really.

Now, I could argue against the idea that an organisation like KSO has no part in the artistic vision of somewhere like the SBC, but if they feel they've already ticked their boxes for classical/orchestral/amateur performance without us, that's their loss. But the fact is that of the 31 days in January 2008, 21 are dark at the QEH, and you have to wonder what kind of artistic vision sees itself as so important that it's better to have a publicly-funded venue empty than to have a respected amateur band like KSO in it. This is not vision, it's an obscenity, and someone needs to start asking what the hell is going on. This Grauniad article from 2006 profiling artistic director Jude Kelly (one of a large number of plum arts jobs she's landed) gives a worrying picture of how she thinks, all bland meaningless buzzwords and platitudes unencumbered by any concrete ideas, and from what I gather talking to various people involved in performing arts at all sorts of levels, there seems to be a feeling that while she is very insistent about what doesn't fit in with her "vision", no-one seems to be able to say exactly what, in any definite terms, that vision is.

If you go to the SBC website and click on "Venue hire" (right at the bottom, not very obvious), you see this:

As well as being a world-class arts venue, Southbank Centre has a variety of auditoria, rooms and spaces that can be hired for a wide range of events, including conferences, AGMs, product launches, graduation ceremonies, receptions, dinners and weddings.


Nothing about concerts or anything like that, you'll notice.

Dark nights and wedding receptions. Is this the bold artistic vision driving the South Bank Centre?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Chasing the blues away

If you're reading this you must have made it through the most miserable day of the year (I marked it by having a filthy cold), so why not celebrate the fact that it's going to get better from hereon by coming to Kensington Symphony Orchestra's concert tonight at Cadogan Hall. As ever, I have written mildly informative and reasonably entertaining programme notes, and as a taster, you can read what I had to say about the Stravinsky piece that opens the show below. And then you might want to go and read why the whole "most depressing day" thing is a load of bobbins.




Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Symphonies of Wind Instruments

Among the pieces written in response to Henry Prunière's call for contributions to a supplement to the Revue Musicale in 1920 to commemorate Debussy, who had died in 1918, one stuck out: where most of the contributing composers (including Falla, Bartók and Ravel) responded with conventionally threnodic or wistful miniatures, Igor Stravinsky offered a cool, austere chorale, bearing the title: "Fragment des Symphonies pour instruments à vent à la mémoire de Claude Achille Debussy".

The complete work, to which this fragment forms the conclusion, in fact has its origins in sketches Stravinsky had made in 1919, while the opening motif was noted down on March 26th, 1918, just after he had learned of the death of Debussy the day before. Most of these sketches indicate that Stravinsky's original intention was to score this music for strings and harmonium, and it seems that they did not find their final form as wind music until much later on, the unrefusable request for a memorial to Debussy providing the final push Stravinsky needed to realise the work's definitive form. As the pluralisation implies, "Symphonies" is not used to denote anything like a conventional classical symphony, but rather harks back to the word's earlier meaning as a generic term for ensemble music (from the Greek "syn" [together] and "phone" [sound]).

The dedication is at least partly ironic; while Stravinsky and Debussy were friends, their relationship was characterised by a certain friction, attributable on Debussy's part to jealousy at the greater fame Stravinsky had achieved, and on Stravinsky's side to resentment at the older composer's occasionally condescending attitude. Debussy did not approve of the more cosmopolitan style that the Russian had been experimenting with, writing to him in 1915 to say;" Cher Stravinsky, you are a great artist! Be, with all your energy, a great Russian artist! It is a good thing to be from one's country, to be attached to the earth like the humblest peasant!"

Stravinsky, however, was by the time of Debussy's death determined to put as much space as possible between himself and his roots. Any hopes he may have entertained about returning to Russia were destroyed after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, after which his modernist style made him persona non grata with the new regime, and it is surely not coincidental that within 2 years he composed Pulcinella, the work which effected a seismic shift in his career, rejecting the Russian folkloristic style that had characterised his greatest successes (not least the Rite of Spring) in favour of the ironic, distanced world of what would become known as neo-classicism. The Symphonies of Winds therefore stands as the last recognisably "Russian" work he produced until the Requiem Canticles some 50 years later - shortly after he visited Russia for the first time since the First World War.

This all goes deeper than mere stylistic turns, though. The structure of the Symphonies, hailed in its early years as something radical, in fact is related very closely to the Russian Orthodox burial service, to the point that one can virtually superimpose the prayers of the service onto the melodic lines that weave their way through the work's short, but intense path. It may be that this work is intended as a burial, not only of Debussy, but also of Stravinsky's own identity as a Russian composer.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Torchwood in "not shit" shock

It's amazing what incredibly low expectations can do.

By the end of the first series of Torchwood (that's series. Seasons are something they have in America) I'd passed through some kind of cosmic irony barrier and was starting to enjoy it for just how unremittingly awful and laughable the whole charade had become. So series 2 was never going to have to do very much to improve in my eyes, and pie-eyed sucker that I am, I decided to give it another chance.

And good lordy, it turned out to be rather enjoyable. Mainly I think because they've decided to ditch the teen-angst vibe and get funny. there were many good gags in the first episode, not a few of which seemed aimed at the weaknesses of the first series. The whole thing's still ridiculous, and paper-thin, but it now has a healthy sense of its own daftness, and is infinitely more watchable because of it. it also helps that the team now actually appear to be operating as a team, and to have some kind of affection for each other and be vaguely likeable as characters. And that Captain Jack now appears to be more or less the same character as he is in Doctor Who. Having Spike out of Buffy as a guest star (out-gaying John Barrowman, which is quite some feat) helped as well. Although the relentless attempting by everyone to get into everyone else's knickers is gong to get very tired very quickly. But all in all, it was quite good fun.

Of course, the first episode of the first series was quite good fun, and look how that turned out, so there's still plenty of time for everything to go tits up. Still, next week we have the prospect of the lovely Freema Agyeman and Jim out of Neighbours to look forward to, so fingers crossed they manage to keep it up (fnarrrr!).

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Faceoff

So, I deleted* my Facebook account. Not just because Facebook is evil, but that's certainly an element. It's also because I'm bored of it, and because I find the "gated community" element disturbing, the curious mixture of shut-off clique and utter contempt for its users' privacy.

Of course, it's not the only evil thing in the world. Hell, MySpaz is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and I haven't felt the need to disappear from that, maybe because I can see that there's a useful purpose to that in keeping up with the kind of small-scale bands I like to keep an eye on. Facebook at best seems only to do something I'm perfectly capable of doing myself - keeping up with friends - and at worst a substitute for it. And of course since it rocketed in popularity it's become a haven for bored office workers to arse about. I think I decided it was over when I started to get fictional characters adding me as a friend. that's usually a good sign.

*I say "delete". Actually, I only "deactivated" it, because it's not at all obvious that it's possible to delete it. Which sums up the sort of totalitarian control Facebook exerts over your personal information.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Happy Birthday Don

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hooray for Radiohead!

Regular readers will be aware that the internal post people at my place of work are a bunch of utter bastards who have lost or stolen the lovely Radiohead discbox I ordered before Christmas.

So many hearty cheers for the lovely people at Radiohead's online shop, who were very kind and helpful and have sent me a replacement box which now sits enticingly by the hi-fi, waiting for me to get the vinyl out and give it a spin. Good, heavy vinyl too, none of your flimsy rubbish. It was great today to hear the album on CD, the better-than-the-download sound quality makes it glow.And the CD of extra songs is great as well. All in all it's a very beautiful object, definitely worth the 40 quid, and you won't be disappointed if you order one yourself while they still have some left.

I've written before about the possible impact the "honesty box" release of In Rainbows might have on the record industry, and it's wonderful to see them leading the way through the innovative method of being nice to their customers beyond what's strictly necessary. I'm a very happy bunny, for once.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

How Pop Music Works

Oh, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. Don't you look fashionable in your unbuttoned shirt and Converses? Look at you, grooving to "Tomorrow Never Knows", nodding sagely to Joni Mitchell, telling us how great Imagine and Bohemian Rhapsody and Wyclef Jean are, making it OK to like pop. Well, you know what? I don't need your patronising waffle to justify listening to anything. I don't need you pinning songs down like butterflies.

The thing is, there are some interesting people on this programme, with pertinent things to say about what makes a great pop song. But why do we have to put up with you bringing your relentlessly average thoughts to bear? It's bad enough that you're becoming ubiquitous in the field of classical music on telly, a middle aged, dressed twenty years too young television producer's wet dream of half-arsed ideas of "accessibility" and "relevance". Why do you have to ruin pop as well?

Bastards

The very excellent Supergrass are playing a "secret" gig at Barfly in Camden this evening, showcasing songs from their new album. Unfortunately I'm not going because the bloody bastard underground's up the spout. Bastards.

The internal post at work has lost my Radiohead discbox. They're bastards too. Bastards bastards bastards.

Oh well, back to the drawing board, then.

Monday, January 07, 2008

I'm Not There

This has been described as a biopic of Bob Dylan, but it isn't, really; it's more of a series of riffs on the idea of Bob Dylan.

There can't be anyone alive who's been so mythologised as Dylan, to the point where he hardly seems like a real person. For years he's fought against his own legend - I remain convinced that all those notoriously, um, wayward performances and records from the 70s until the 90s represent him trying to destroy Bob the Legend. Then, when he realised that being a shambles only reinforced the myth, he resigned himself to his status, and decided not to worry about it, after which we got the wonderful trilogy of albums of the past few years, the delightful Theme Time Radio Hour, and Chronicles, all of which showcase a Bob apparently more at ease with himself than he's seemed for years.

So what we get in this film isn't any kind of conventional biography. Instead there are 7 different characters, all standing in for various aspects and periods of Dylan's career and persona: a young black kid trying to fake his way through the blues, a young Rimbaud obsessive called, er, Arthur Rimbaud; an earnest young Woody Guthrie-a-like; the iconic super-hip sharp talker of the mid-60s (played by a woman); an actor with a failing marriage; a born-again preacher; and a country hobo who turns out to be more than he seems.

None of these personae presents any accurate depiction of events; this is clearest in the "60s" Bob, where events documented on film are presented in versions that play up to the mythology of what happened. Cate Blanchett's astonishing turn as "Jude Quinn" is the only one of the seven Dylans that is pitched as an impersonation of him; these are intended as archetypes that resonate with one or more perceptions of Dylan and his work. Even Blanchett's performance is more myth than reality, and comes across as the one attempt to "do Bob" more because Dylan's 60's image is one that rock stars ever since have appropriated in an attempt to seem sharp.

If you try and fit the film to the life too closely you'll end up frustrated. I'm reminded to some extent of Burrough's later work such as The Place of Dead Roads, where one character plays out his story in multiple times and dimensions. I suppose in a way one of the major themes of this film is the impossibility of nailing down who Dylan is or what he represents. At the end of the film, as Richard Gere rides off on a train, strumming one of his younger selves' guitar, perhaps a nod to Dylan's recent work, where he's become for real the great bluesman he started of pretending to be, we finally see Dylan himself, in a piece of footage from a live concert. He doesn't sing, he just blows his harmonica and strums his guitar, inscrutable and unreachable, and strangely peaceful. It's a moment that, like a lot of this film, lingers in the mind long after the credits have rolled. Maybe it shows what Dylan himself has always insisted: whatever roles and significances we may try and pin to him, he's really just a song and dance man.

Whether it's a help or a hindrance to know a great deal about Dylan before you watch this film I'm not sure. It'd be interesting to hear the views of someone who knew next to nothing about him

Friday, January 04, 2008

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive

It's that time of year when a pall of hangover seems to envelop the world. The holidays are over, but many people are yet to return to work, and travelling on public transport in London is a relatively painless way to spend your time (the odd closure due to drunken engineers aside). Strange how all those signal failures and the like seem to be absent at the same time as all those people. Maybe there's some kind of collectivist disease that overcomes the system when it's in its usual overcrowded state that sets off a mechanical nervous breakdown. It's certainly an odd realisation, standing on the Central Line platform and being able to board the train without pushing, that this is the level of capacity the tube was actually built to cope with, and it works when it's like this.

I spend my tube journeys reading Will Self's Psychogeography, which chimes with my own feelings about travelling round on my bike: the sense of place that you don't get underground, rushing about at the commuters' pace. The other London, hidden beneath roads and rails, on towpaths and riverbanks.