Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Night Ted Milton Blew Me A Kiss - Blurt, The Montague Arms, New Cross 23.03.07

Blurt in New Cross on a cold Friday night. There's Ted in his white zoot suit and hobnail boots get-up, going mad in his inimitable way. There can't be many acts where you can see a mohicaned savant in his 60s spouting anarchic poetry and avant garde sax licks ... Blurt - number one in a field of one. I've said it before, but what makes Blurt work so well is the discipline. Steve Eagles on guitar and Bob Leith on minimal drum kit create a very tight, thrilling musical backdrop for Milton to operate against ... Ted's vocals and lyrics are in a class of their own - wry, sarcastic, Dadaist; his incandescent sax playing, too, left any notion of the conventional behind years ago. Displaying a dissonant but melodic inventiveness lost to most jazzers these days, one thinks of Beefheart and Ornette, one thinks of Albert Ayler. Over the years Blurt music has evolved in an interesting fashion; starting out as our very own answer to No Wave, the original template has been twisted in subtle ways to bring in elements of jazz or Afro Beat for example without losing the original impetus that made me love them in the first place. I even detected a trace of rockabilly here and there. Blurt make a fragmented, jerrybuilt noise, experimental but visceral.

He has a very striking stage presence, does Milton. Theatrical, manic, he gives the impression of a man hanging over the edge, shouting back over his shoulder what he can see out there. Holding up my little digicam, he fixes me with a beady eye at one point and blows me a kiss. Ted, I'm charmed.

Ted blows me a kiss.

They run a through a good representative set of Blurt songs, including the classics 'Cherry Blossom Polish' and 'Enemy Ears' ("I will soon come to power!" ... well, I'd vote for you, Ted) and get the crowd dancing. Move your arse and your mind will follow? Blurt have been doing it for years.

I think the final word should go to Ted:

I am an empty vessel

And I make a lot of noise

And I looove to do, and I loooove to do, and I looooove to do

The washing up.

I am not one of the boys!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

I Only Live On The Surface, I Don't Think People Are Very Pretty Inside

The music of James Chance has stayed, stubbornly, fiercely, with me since the day I bought a copy of Off White by an odd bunch calling themselves James White and The Blacks in a second hand record shop when I was a teenager ('79 this would be, the year the album was released ... obviously someone had really liked it) - bought it entirely on spec, having no knowledge of the band or what kind of music it might produce but having had my attention caught by the wonderful sleeve; a retro 50s affair with some louche oddity in a white tux and a big greasy quiff (and, wonderful detail this, a Luger tie pin).
Elements of jazz and funk and Beefheart and Voidoids-like punk chopped and channeled into something new; the peculiar vocal and lyrical approach ... I wasn't sure if this music was very beautiful or very ugly, I wasn't sure if I liked it or hated it - but I couldn't stop listening to it. Reader, I was hooked.
James White, I learned quickly, was also James Chance (of whom I had heard); when I bought a copy of Buy, the Contortions album, I was sold. Chance's lyrics - the sarcasm, the spite, the humour, the unerring ability to hit a target where it hurts; his spastic, manic sax-playing (the whine of an angry hornet or a dentist's drill); the oblique song structures; the visual presentation - everything about Chance's approach tickled me.
A sick, skinny white (very white) boy channeling the spirits of James Brown and Ornette Coleman. How could you not love him?

The music of Chance - the sense of dislocation was utterly perfect, the disorientation so right. His lyrics expressed a strangely life-affirming mix of misanthropy, nihilism and self-hatred - they are very, very funny - along with an attitude to black culture (and white attitudes to black culture) both rancorous and envious.
His approach, his lyrical stance, had an unerring ability to show up fault lines in the supposedly liberal mindset ... the titles of the Blacks album raise more questions than they answer ('White Savages', 'Bleached Black') about white liberal attitudes to race and colour; the lyrics to 'Almost Black' ("Well,he's almost black/That nigger's white/Well,he's got some moves/Yeah, but they ain't right") are an astonishing portrayal of what Mailer had termed the White Negro. Chance's reputation for violence (hitting audience members), his misanthropy and penchance for controversial statements got him labeled a bit of a racist and something of a trouble-maker in the small over-heated New York scene he inhabited. I would point out the multiracial and gendered nature of every band he led, in a scene overwhelmingly white and male; I would point out, also, the awareness, in his bands, of musics (jazz, funk, disco, Afro beat, etc.) other than rock in a scene noticeably lumpen.
In his personal life, Chance was said to be a nice, quiet, polite young man, introverted even - his public persona was, perhaps, an opportunity to set free his inner Mr Hyde; the nicest thing a former band-member could find to say about him was that he was "vile-tempered and dictatorial". Which is some distinction. Someone once described him as 'bilious beyond his years'. Which is another.

What, with Chance, snags my interest is his utter contrariness ... his song 'Bedroom Athlete', for instance - "I'm not a bedroom athlete ... you better use a pump!", it's a work of genius and a brilliant upending of the usual macho braggadocio found in rock and funk (Jesus, let's not even start on rap); his theme song 'Contort Yourself' replaces the good time/chill out vibe of disco and funk with a nihilistic hymn to ego-extinction - "Once you forget your affection for the human race, reduce yourself to a zero, then you're gonna fall right in place", indeed. The music nags and whines, his sax screeches and squeals, the lyrics chip away. What strikes me about everything Chance has produced is the utter lack of ingratiation.

I remember Chance's first ever British performance - his band had quit, or had been fired, at JFK airport so he assembled a scratch band, including PiL's Keith Levine, and tried to teach them the rudiments of a set on the afternoon of the gig. An hour or so late on, the band would lock into a basic riff while Chance screamed and cried and played sax and squirmed all over the stage ... it remains one of the greatest concerts I've ever seen.

My long-suffering parents had become inured to The Stooges, The Velvet Underground and The Sex Pistols ... only two records ever made them bolt upstairs screaming "take that off!" - Cabaret Voltaire's Three Mantras and Buy The Contortions.

Chance's music, like that of his No Wave contemporaries, seems to consist of nothing but middle eights. Paradoxically, to a certain extent, the sonic area it inhabits cuts out the middle ground - the bottom end filled by the rhythm sections, the top end by niggling guitar and Chance's atonal sax and shrieked vocals.

Ian Penman loved Chance's music, Paul Morley couldn't stand it.

Someone, God help me it may have been Robert Elms, offered the quite savvy analogy that Chance's music is what Richard Hell would have made had he been obsessed by James Brown instead of Lou Reed (a similar career arc to Hell, too ... early impetus stalled by critical neglect, drugs, paranoia and sheer bloody-mindedness).

'Flip Your Face' was cited by Steve Albini as his favourite song.

The Flaming Demonics album shows something of a Fela Kuti influence, shared (in a weird and minimalist fashion) by late period Blurt ... so Fela was obviously something of a favourite with post-punk atonal anarchic sax-abusers.

It's a crying shame, but Chance's sax playing will never be given due respect by the jazz community - blistering chromatic runs and free-form solos and a melodic but discordant inventiveness. Like Albert Ayler, Chance reunited the avant garde with the simplicity and rawness of folk music ... in Ayler's case, the Negro spirituals and Pentecostal hymns of his youth, in Chance's, punk thrash. Chance's humour and brash attempts at bringing disparate forms together got him thrown out of the jazz club ... although certainly, John Zorn took everything he could from those old Contortions tracks.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

David I. Masson R.I.P.

David I. Masson 6 November 1915 - 25 february 2007

Unwelcome synchronicity department ... I mentioned David I. Masson in a comment to a post over on Kid Shirt only a few weeks ago (25.2.07, the pedant in me (which makes up approximately 87% of my personality) impels me to point out) and now I hear Mr Masson has passed on ... on that very day, spookily enough. One of the most interesting contributors to 'New Worlds' during Michael Moorcock's wonderful editorship, when the New Wave in science fiction was challenging notions of what genre fiction was and could achieve. For a short, heady period in the 1960s, some of the most vibrant avant garde writing around was being published in a funny little SF magazine out of the hippy hinterlands of Notting Hill - and foremost amongst this work was David I. Masson's. He published seven brilliant, provocative short stories in 'New Worlds' and that was that.
Maybe he had said what he wanted to say, but apart from a very small number of stories (three, all in all, I think) in SF anthologies, that was the sum total of fiction he chose to publish. In addition, a few poems and some highly praised studies of sound patterning in poetics make up Mr Masson's entire ouevre. A small but perfect body of work - Masson's short stories are dense, metaphysical, intelligent. He published the 'New World' seven in a wonderful collection titled The Caltraps Of Time; there is now, I believe, an edition available with the extra three stories rounded up and included. Well worth reading, and a reminder of a great talent.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Richard Hell, The Dolls Redux - (And So On)

The trouble with the Dolls: their flirtation with chaos - like all high wire acts carried out without aid of a safety net, at some point someone is going to slip and fall and get hurt.
The trouble with Johnny Thunders: the bad habits he learned with The Dolls - a junk habit, a truculent attitude, a disinclination to practice his art. All of the foregoing amplified within The Heartbreakers.
The New York Dolls - they coulda been, they shoulda been the biggest, the greatest.

Richard Hell: Johnny was really lazy ... I was pretty lazy but Johnny was really lazy.

Thunders, in a career spanning some twenty years helped create only four albums proper (or three and a half if you're nitpicking ... his first solo album was stitched together from a number of disparate sessions); the rest of his oeuvre consists of shoddy collections of shitty live cuts, outtakes and studio floor sweepings. Post Dolls, he wrote perhaps two or three half-good songs.
'You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory', though, if you like that sort of thing, is an absolute classic.
Hell, for his part? From the early-to-mid 1970s (on and off), a professional (more or less) musician (more or less), and three albums to boast of - two with the Voidoids, one with The Dim Stars. Where, he once asked, did those years go? A few sessions with The Neon Boys/Television - forever buried (apart from three or four songs) due to Verlaine's intransigence, some demos with the Heartbreakers (again, only some of which have seen the light of day).

Hell (of course) was a, perhaps the, pivotal figure. A founder member of The Neon Boys/Television, and The Heartbreakers - he would suffer the indignity of being turfed out of both bands by singer/guitarists jealous of sharing the limelight. Certainly, with Television, Hell was responsible for the conceptual/visual side of the group ... which made up a good 50% of what made that group interesting (a rough analogy can be drawn here with Hell's beloved Eno-era Roxy Music, although one would obviously argue percentage points). The banks of televisions onstage. The look, customised, grafitied thrift-store, chopped-up hair, old geezer's clothes, was a million miles from both the glam fag-end and trad rock image prevalent in the rock scene as a whole and, more importantly, in their little corner of New York.

Not musical enough for Verlaine? Hmm ... I always found Hell a good solid bass-player, a lyricist of rare distinction and, on a good night, a fascinating, febrile performer. Is it true that Verlaine gradually sidelined Hell, progressively cutting down the number of Hell-penned songs from the set and forbidding him to jump around on stage? What Hell possessed, mostly absent from Verlaine, was a fine, sly sense of humour. What Verlaine didn't want was a rival.
Insecurity can be so ugly ... Television may have garnered more critical kudos but for me The Voidoids always had the edge ... far more visceral while at the same time more oblique ... Hell's lyrics and preoccupations, the wonderful twin guitar attack courtesy of Ivan Julian and Robert Quine (gone but not forgotten, Quine).

The Blank Generation - blank as in tabula rasa, a space where one could write one's own persona, one's own demands (not as in vacant ... the productive misreading by The Sex Pistols, 'Pretty Vacant' an attempt to come up with their very own little 'Blank Generation').

A tale repeated so (so) many times, one is sick of hearing it ... but Hell really did invent the punk template; the spiky hair, the ripped-up and customised clothing, the provocatively nihilistic demeanour.
His music, though, was always far more interesting than three chord punk thrash - lyrically, too complex, too romantic and poetic, musically too grown-up. (This is all so obvious, it barely needs stating. Which is why I'm stating it). The Voidoids? They coulda been, shoulda been, if not the biggest (too stubborn, too individual for that), at least not reduced to supporting The Clash.

The genius of Hell: that nom de guerre ... alienated, smart, Romantic, bitter.

The genius of Hell: his comment that he formed the Voidoids because he was lonely.

The genius of Hell: the Voidoids gig when he went onstage with a dog on a lead.

The genius of Hell: the vocal style - an impassioned yelp, untutored but capable of expressing contempt, yearning and ennui ... all within the same song.

The genius of Hell: the lyrics ... take 'Love Comes In Spurts'- "And it murders your heart/They didn't tell you that part". Has anyone ever better articulated the danger and desire of love and sex and death and all that crazed Bataille-type stuff in a pop song?

The Hell visage - the two thousand yard stare (brilliantly reduced to, erm, blankness in the image on the back cover of the Sire 'Blank Generation' 12", the eyes cut out), the provocation, the ugly/beautiful dichotomy, the bitterness, the hurt, the vunerablilty, the toughness.
Enigmatic, a mirror looking back at you. Fragile and bruised, Poe and Rimbaud.

As Gilbert and George were asking at around the same time - are you angry or are you boring?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

... In The Powder Room Where You Chit Chat With Diana Dors

I'm getting nostalgic again - prompted by a weekend viewing of New York Doll, a strangely moving little documentary about Arthur "Killer" Kane, New York Dolls bassist, Mormon convert and the most hilariously unconvincing transvestite in rock.
That slim volume by Morrissey, have I got it still? Remember Babylon Books? Crudely printed by contemporary standards, but in an age before the internet and plush CD reissues, packed full of information impossible to find elsewhere. Morrisey's little Dolls book was wonderful ... some very nice writing, lovely photos and archive material. He, of course, left his true metier behind when he decided to form The Smiths.
I had been an enthusiastic listener of the Velvet Underground and The Stooges for some time, but my exposure to The Dolls had been contemporary with the early stirrings of what was being (inaccurately, unimaginatively) termed 'punk' ... yes, all the cliches, the influence on The Sex Pistols, the McLaren connection, the (ultimately poisonous) presence of erstwhile Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan on the Anarchy tour.
The wonderful thing about the Dolls was that their New York was as much Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island as Manhattan ... genuine proles in from the outer boroughs. Were they patronised by the self-styled rock intelligentsia that hung around the NY club scene? David Johansen never claimed a Rimbaud influence in his lyrics, Mr Johnny Thunders didn't think his guitar playing the equivalent of a Coltrane solo. Like The Stooges, however, their lyrical and musical presence, while sneered at in their day turns out to have been a damn sight wittier and weightier than some of the more critically lauded and self-consciously intellectual rock scum you may care to mention. The Dolls' lyrics struck me as very funny, self-aware and political, without ever having to resort to channeling dead French Symbolist poets.
(Richard Hell, in a wonderful essay about Thunders, writes that he always thought Thunders was smart like Elvis ... there are two basic types of intelligence, like Wittgenstein or like Elvis; now, you can get to be smart like Wittgenstein just by thinking hard enough, but smart like Elvis? That was innate, it couldn't be learned, it was a type of grace. He also said that people tended to condescend to Thunders because they thought they had him nailed but he constantly surprised people with his wit .... oh, and Hell loved Thunders' guitar playing because it sounded sarcastic).

The ultimate Dolls paradox ... how could a group that had stolen a large part of their musical template and the whole of their visual impact from late 60s/early 70s Rolling Stones generate so much more excitement and adrenalin than the Stones ever had? Of course, the Dolls exaggerated certain aspects ... the androgyny, the glamour, the self-destruction.
The way Johansen and Thunders exploded the Mick'n'Keef act to a Surrealistic degree, a Hans Belmer dream of the Stones.

What I loved about the Dolls was the pure pop influence ... doo-wop, Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley, girly groups, old-fashioned R'n'B. The genius of getting The Shangri-Las guru Shadow Morton to produce the second album Too Much, Too Soon. (What was it Thunders said about them never having stood a chance, in having an acid head produce the first album and a drunk the second? Unfair, that, both records stand up very well).

What I loved about the Dolls - the grace notes ... lyrically, the reference to Diana Dors in 'It's Too Late' or the "someone's in the kitchen with Dinah"! refrain at the end of 'Subway Train'; the sax solo at the end of 'Human Being' (courtesy of the Fantastic Buddy Bowser ... what was it Morrissey wrote, the sax mysteriously becoming the concluding Dolls sound on record?); the utterly individual way they had of dressing (check Sylvain Sylvain's beautiful androgynous gangster chic below), so much edgier and wittier than any of the poodle-haired idiots that followed in their wake. Witness the six or so inches of hairy leg Johansen exposes between the satin keks and the platform mules on the cover of the first album ... hard now to appreciate the extremity of the visual (as well as musical) impact the Dolls had then. Look, in certain places out in the boondocks, you could actually get lynched for looking like that.

What I really loved about the Dolls was the haplessness but courageousness of their career; the missed opportunities, the chaos, the recklessness in going along with McLaren's insane idea to relaunch them in Commie chic (yes, just the way to get an encore in the Midwest ... drape yourself in a Hammer and Sickle flag).

Apart from The Sex Pistols, almost every group who filched an influence or three from the hapless Dolls where/are irredeemable, appalling rubbish of the worst kind. I ask you - Kiss, Aerosmith, W.A.S.P., Motley Crue (give or take an umlaut or two), Hanoi Rocks, Guns N'Roses ... should I even mention Dogs D'Amour? The exception that proves the rule ... Bowie and his magpie tendencies; the difference between the essentially updated 60's palate of Ziggy and the flashier, more contemporary edge detectable in Aladdin Sane (witness the Billy Murcia reference in 'Time') and Diamond Dogs ... by that time Bowie had been to New York. Always a smart cookie when it came to grabbing influences, our Dave.

A dream union, 1973 - Andy Mackay and Marc Bolan guesting on a New York Dolls album, produced by Mick Ronson. How wonderful would that have been? One of the great pop meets that never was.

The New York Dolls - The Apocrypha

(Tales that are probably inaccurate but, Jesus, how we wish they were true).

Johnny Thunders claiming to be the bastard son of Eddie Cochran ... chances are against this being true (Cochran being true WASP (but thankfully not W.A.S.P.), while Thunders being of obvious Italian extraction) but let's not be too hasty; where was Cochran in 1951 ... anywhere near Queens?

David Johansen and his pre-Dolls history - including appearing in a few, erm, spicy films ... how does Bike Boys Go Ape grab you?

Johansen being arrested for impersonating a female in Memphis, while on tour with the Dolls. Would you, legend has him demanding, do this to Elvis? We'd love to get him, came the reply.

That's either a large baguette stuffed down the front of Johnny Thunders' trousers in the photo adorning the back cover of the Dolls' first album ... or he was very pleased to see David Johansen (or Sylvain Sylvain ... he was prettier).