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A Vagabond

18 Feb

vagabundo

The gentleman depicted here is a vagabond, from the Latin vagari, to wander.

In English the term has almost disappeared in its original sense, although a quick internet search identifies the popularity of the term to help sell niche products, for example: a wine shop in London’s West End; a Swedish shoe manufacturer; an chic boutique in Philadelphia.

A Spanish Wikipedia entry on the word vagabundo (vagabond) begins like this:

“A vagabond is a lazy or idle person who wanders from one place to another, having neither a job, nor income, nor a fixed address. It is a type familiar from Castilian literature, which contains many examples of vagabond pícaros . . .

In the dialect of Lunfardo, which originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries among the lower classes of Buenos Aires, the term ciruja is applied to vagabonds who collect rubbish and sort through it in search of something useful. The term derives from the word for a surgeon, cirujano. Popular wisdom has it that these vagabonds were compared to surgeons because of the way in which they carefully sought out objects of interest, picking them from trash containers and municipal tips, rather than from inside a human body. This last attribute – the meticulous extraction of some unexpected treasure from amid the rejected dross of the everyday – seems rather fitting.

In French chanson, vagabonds are typically depicted as materially impoverished characters possessed of an irresistible allure. The singer Lucienne Delyle (1917-62), one of the most popular French singers of the 1950s (her greatest hit was Mon amant de Saint-Jean) also had a song called Chanson vagabonde, which can be heard here.

 

 

 

 

Zorba and friends

8 Mar

A joyful retort to the Greek debt crisis. Watch out for the Ottawa Zorba Sweepers at the end. What professionals!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old Ideas by Leonard Cohen

6 Feb

A new collection of Leonard Cohen songs is a rare event, and Old Ideas, which recycles some familiar themes from the archive, does not disappoint. Throughout Cohen speaks or intones, in his trademark gravelese, not really venturing to follow a tune anymore. Not surprisingly there is a weariness here at times – the guy is 77, after all – reflected in a handwritten scribble in the liner notes: ‘coming to the end of the book / but not quite yet / maybe when we reach the bottom.’ Whether or not this is the last recording by the Magus of Montreal, it has certainly been worth the wait.

If you come to this album expecting all the songs to be of the very highest quality you will be disappointed: they are uneven and the overriding effect is of mood music, Cohen-style, but there are three or four beauties. My favourites are tracks two and three, Amen and Show me the place, in which the singer enacts the role of slave in some religio-sexual psychodrama of the kind we have come to associate almost uniquely with the work of Leonard Cohen. There are also some wonderful, ironic self-references, beginning with the opening lines of the opening song: ‘I love to speak with Leonard / he’s a sportsman and a shepherd’.

‘Amen’ has a familiarity to it, one of those songs you feel you’ve heard before, a song that has always been around . . . I can’t make out whether it is because it bears an uncanny resemblance to a previous Cohen song, and therefore the circling melody and the slow-riding rhythm are so familiar, or simply, as so often with this writer, there is something archetypal in the song itself, as though Cohen were singing from the very bowels of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, brimming over with guilt or nostalgia for things that may or may not have happened. The lyrics alone barely do justice to the slowly churning melody, but I will copy them anyway, and follow it with a clip (unfortunately not from a live performance):

 

Tell me again

When I’ve been to the river

And I’ve taken the edge off my thirst

Tell me again

When we’re alone and I’m listening

I’m listening so hard that it hurts

Tell me again

When I’m clean and I’m sober

Tell me again

When I’ve seen through the horror

Tell me again

Tell me over and over

Tell me that you want me then

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seasonal Affective Disorder

1 Jan

 

Having gone out at the beginning of Christmas week and bought a box of a dozen (yes, 12) Krispy Kreme doughnuts and eaten seven (7) of them myself, I feel some changes are overdue.

Blanco actually has several New Year’s resolutions for a change but isn’t telling because clearly if you tell then you can be found lacking, whereas if you don’t tell no one is the wiser and you can still breathe the rarefied air that comes with being good. In any case, Blanco is fleeing the grey skies of Cardiff early tomorrow morning in order to spend ten days in a place far distant from the-land-where-the-sky-is-too-close-to-the-ground and although it will not be warm, there is a good chance of blueness in the heavenly vaults. And blue skies help Blanco to think, whereas the endless grey and drizzle of the-land-where-the-sky-is-too-close-to-the-ground only gives rise to a kind of anti-thought, a condition exacerbated by a constant need for potatoes and doughnuts and dumplings and chocolate and cake and biscuits and other stuff to feed the gap where thought might seep in if given half a chance or a modicum of sunlight.

Ah sunlight! I know we don’t have much to complain about compared with those poor bastards who live up near the North Pole, the Siberians and Norwegians and Finns and the Elfenfolk and so forth, but this isn’t a competition, I just need sunlight otherwise I start going bonkers and am liable to bite people, or even bite dogs, a habit I try to curb, but which flares up in an instant whenever my supply of potatoes/dumplings/doughnuts/chocolate dwindles and I feel the mordant urge creeping over me.  But neither do I wish to complain, it is always better to NOT complain.

So, on the brink of this new year I should announce that if there are no posts forthcoming in the next ten days or so it is because I am immersed in my work and because the house where I am going has no legal internet access, and neither is there mobile phone coverage. Which, all things considered, makes it a perfect place to go and write, or to read – or even to sleep. Or simply to disengage from the tweeting, gibbering world of nonstop noise for just a while and recuperate the forces that lie within.

And, to celebrate the wonderful Xmas gift I received from Mrs Blanco, the Mariachi El Bronx CD, here is a clip of the boys singing ‘Cell Mates’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death is Not the End

30 Dec

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this statement, which reminds me briefly (of course) of a novel I read a while ago, Eternity is Temporary, which started well, but fizzled out by exploding the sexual tension too quickly. Is that an allegory for something? Is that what eternity is really like? Very exciting for the first half hour or so and then immensely tedious? Or should we go along with Bob Dylan, who no doubt wrote the song Death is Not the End in one of the religious phases that have speckled his career, thereby launching a host of cover versions. Another sly allegory.

The version here is performed by Nick Cave, with guests Kylie Minogue, Shane MacGowan and a chap with a very fetching accent. I recall driving around Europe with this on the car CD player a decade or more ago, the young Blanco daughters singing along merrily in the back seat. How pungently ironic. The mind begins to boggle at the prospect of an eternity spent with the motley crewage of miscreants and addicts assembled in this video  But then again, the performance has a unique charm, and serves as Blanco’s contribution to the end of year festivities.

 

 

 

 

Advice to aspiring writers, and smoking by the riverside

14 Dec

The question – the recurrent question – asked at those events (after a reading, say, or at a literary festival) when the author is expected to wax lyrical and wise on all manner of subjects is ‘what advice would you give to a writer who is just starting out?’ I asked it myself last Monday of Peter Finch, and he gave a damn good answer – the same answer I always give – which is to read more.

Andrés Neuman. According to Roberto Bolaño "The literature of the 21st century will belong to Neuman and a handful of his blood brothers."

On his blog, Argentinian poet and prizewinning novelist Andrés Neuman (whose fabulous novel, Traveller of the Century will be available in English from February next year) says he was recently asked by a magazine to give six items of advice to beginners, and his perplexed reply was, in my loose translation, as follows:

1. Don’t conform to the patronising attitudes of older writers. They were also young, and in all probability more clueless.

2. Tradition doesn’t weigh on us, but invites us in. We write as we read: writing is a supreme form of re-reading.

3. Try, make mistakes and try again. A bad manuscript is worth far more than a supposed genius who abstains from writing, just to be on the safe side.

4. Keep correcting, to the limits of your patience.

5. Remember that we are all beginners: writing is an inaugural art and lacks experts.

6. Don’t accept six pieces of advice from anyone. One is already too many.

Otherwise – and this is completely unrelated, I was flicking through the cyberworld yesterday, and I discovered that Joseph Hill of the reggae band Culture died five years ago already, when I wasn’t looking. At the risk of going on like an old fart I remember going to see Culture at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, must have been 1977, and being knocked for six, unless that was just from inhaling the fumes from all the people who had been consorting with Mr Bong and Mr Spliff. Anyway, here is a song to remember him by.

 

 

 

 

 

A State of Wonder, Part Two: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Glenn Gould

9 Nov

I have two recordings of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the piano. The first was made in 1955, the year before I was born, and the second in 1981, shortly before the pianist’s death, the same year that I left London and went to live in Crete. The second version is quite different from the first, and lasts several minutes longer. I think of the earlier recording as a day-time piece, and the second as nocturnal. They are both sublime, but in the first Gould is the young concert pianist on a mission, and he dazzles with his technical brilliance, his impeccable sense of timing. By the time he made the later recording he had nothing to prove, he had achieved everything a virtuoso pianist might reasonably be expected to achieve and more, and while there is no trace of complacency to the playing, it exudes a certain detached or entranced quality. Possibly the second version is more exacting, more profound, he lingers over the notes of the first variation with a confidence that is not to be confused with arrogance, a confidence that conveys a total acquaintance with, and mastery of, the music, a familiarity with every phrase, every musical innuendo, the fruit of years of study, and he is able to hover, and to hoist the listener into a space above and beyond the music, to linger there in a state of wonder, a phrase the pianist himself made use of. The album notes carry a quote from Gould: “The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”

There are two photographs of the artist, taken in the respective years the recordings were made. In the first he is young, quite handsome even, or dashing, his hair flopping over his eyes, while in the later photo his hair has thinned and he is wearing glasses. In both pictures his concentration is almost palpable, and in both his mouth is open, not significantly, not gawping, but open, as though he was concentrating so hard that he had forgotten to close it, or had opened it to say something, and forgotten his lines – or to groan (his recordings are marked by these occasional groans, which should be disturbing, but are not).

Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach keep me company for long hours, while I sit at my desk. He is a faultless companion, especially when I am struggling to impose order on my thoughts. I would like to catch some of the fallout from his playing, inform my own thought with some of that rigour, that clarity of intent, employ his music as a force-field against the fatigue that overtakes me as I type away, as a weapon against the viral dance, against the affliction of sleeplessness, in an inverse sense to the one in which they were first intended: for, ironically, Bach is supposed to have written the Goldberg Variations around 1741 to ease his patron, Count Keyserling’s nights of insomnia.

 

From The Vagabond’s Breakfast pp 133-4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beethoven and all that jazz

7 Nov

After recent posts on Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Jazz it is time for a quick note on Beethoven. For years I didn’t listen to Beethoven at all, finding too much of his orchestral music overdramatic, overstated, overblown. Then, a few years back I acquired a version of the recordings made by the Busch Quartet in the 1930s (recordings made before and after the quartet’s re-location from Germany to London, and then to New York during World War Two). Despite the audible crackling (this was before they were digitally remastered in 2008, and the interference removed) the recordings convey an astonishing degree of sensitivity and pathos. Pathos is a word that seems most apt with regard to Beethoven, a man who supposedly died while raging against the dying of the light, fist raised to the heavens – and during a thunderstorm for good measure. To which end, here is an animated bar-graph score of the Grosse Fuge op. 133.

 

 

The other night I caught the opening episode of new TV series that focuses on the history of the symphony (and is titled, helpfully, Symphony), that ultimate collision of form and content that emerged with Haydn and Mozart and was taken by the scruff of the neck and booted into the nineteenth century by Beethoven with his Eroica symphony in 1804. Beethoven was a republican (but not in the American sense) and an early supporter of Napoleon (but not once he had proclaimed himself Emperor) and reputedly told one of his patrons: “There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.” Quite a self-believer then.

When I was a wild young thing, thumping out Beethoven and Brahms fiercely and passionately but with negligible technique, my piano teacher once played me a section of the opus 111 piano sonata and told me to listen how, with its double-dotted rhythms it pre-empted jazz (or ragtime) figures that only emerged a century later. I don’t know how accurate his analysis was,  but whenever I listen to those crazy lilting rhythms now – which break in after nearly seven minutes of the clip below – I can’t help wondering what the audiences of his day must have made of this music: they can’t ever have heard, or even imagined, anything like it. And that is something that we miss altogether, as we have the whole of intervening musical history acting as a kind of barrier, and what we hear, we hear through the filter of all the music that has been composed and played since his time.

Historically, Beethoven has been best remembered for his symphonies (as the current TV series illustrates), for the fabulous unifying Ode to Joy from the ninth and ironically (since we were at war with his fatherland) for the famous introduction to the fifth symphony, now forever linked to the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill. But it is the last quartets and sonatas that I, as a listener, return to, although more and more I prefer to listen to jazz.

 

 

 

 

Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Shane MacGowan, Charles Bukowski and all

5 Nov

Young Tom Waits

Can you do a music review before listening to the music? Let’s see.

Yesterday I received through the post the new CD by Tom Waits, though I have not had the nerve to play it yet. I am not sure I even want to. I do not know quite how I feel about Mr Waits. There is an element of the showman about him that I don’t quite trust.

Unlike Mr Dylan, who can get away with the line “Me, I’m just a song and dance man” because he is so evidently much more, with Waits one might be forgiven for suspecting that such a self-diagnosis would be spot on. The talent is undeniable, and so is the musical range, the technical understanding and the skilful use of genre. The intense and earthy songs of heartbreak and loss on the album Heart attack and Vine once provided me with the perfect music to get miserably drunk to, alone and gloriously despairing, and there have been hundreds of versions of the same songs since. He does slow and sad and he does loud and fast. Both are good, though with the latter he does tend to shout.

Charles Bukowski

I am willing to accept, perhaps, that my difficulty with Tom Waits is that I over-identified with his music for too long, and the problem lies with me rather than with him. And of course I cannot forgive the fact that he was never the real down-and-out he sang about (although he did sing about the lifestyle well). He is linked forever with Bukowski in the mythology I spun about myself in the 1980s (when I was in my twenties) and I cannot read a single line of Bukowski these days, I just find it laughable.  Quite apart from his having a face like a jam doughnut. Waits and Bukowski, the dream team (though oddly, Bukowski’s favourite singer-songwriter was Randy Newman, who I liked in my teens but afterwards found rather tame). All these blokes, trying to prove how close to the edge they lived. Maybe I never took either Waits or Bukowski that seriously, they just summed up a lifestyle, but failed to go much deeper.

Shane MacGowan of course, he was another. Maybe he still is. Someone props him up every now and then and he stumbles onto a stage and sings a few songs in an increasingly incomprehensible and strangulated voice, but Christ he had a gift, as a songwriter if nothing else. I met him once, in a bar in Camden. I was always bumping into famous people when I was a drunk. He seemed a decent enough bloke, just fed up with the attention, enjoying a bit of quiet time, I could respect that.  His songs with The Pogues became the anthems of my treks on foot across Spain towards the end of the eighties, just as Waits and Dylan had provided the lyrics of my hikes earlier in the decade, across Greece and Italy and France. Roberto Bolaño loved The Pogues too.

And what about Lennie? Leonard Cohen, I mean. I listened to him ardently when I was fourteen, fifteen, then went right off him until I rediscovered his music in my forties. I found out that his best songs can survive multiple replays in ways that Waits’ can never stand up to. And his concert at the Cardiff Arena a few years ago was one of the three best concerts (along with Lila Downs at Peralada and Mariza at Palafrugell) that I have seen in well, the last decade (and that includes two concerts by Dylan himself). I might have a Leonard Cohen song playing at my funeral  – yes, I’ve thought about that, such is the dreadful urge towards oblivion, guided by Cohen singing, now which was it, ‘Dance me to the end of love’ or ‘Take this waltz’? I can never decide. Not that I’ll be listening.

 

 

 

But Tommo? He seems very together. Something that you could hardly claim for Cohen, whose biography I read a few years ago and who came across as terminally screwed up, for all the Zen stuff. Or maybe not. Maybe that is just an asinine remark, maybe we are all screwed up, and that part of Cohen’s beauty (and his charm) is that his pain has so indelibly marked him that we are touched, as it were, by the fall-out from his own menagerie of perfume, lace and broken violins, and we can sink into a delectable narcotic haze of suffering by proxy. Certainly the teenage girls in bedsits who were deemed to be his early audience were not alone. This teenage boy was spellbound through long nights with Songs from a Room. And, if I am honest, still can be. He offers just that much more: I’ll call it a flake of the ineffable, because it sounds kind of Cohenesque.

But as for Tom, my internal critic just won’t shut up. Blanco likes the songs, enjoys the ironic melancholy, loves the stuff about drunken sailors and jumping ship to Singapore – and, as an aside, in many of the songs from Rain Dogs, Waits’ best album to date, there are strong personal associations with Thomas Pynchon’s fabulous novel V. which, along with Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night, was another of Blanco’s travelling companions from the 1980s but he has problems incorporating Waits into the same illustrious hall of greatness at which Dylan and Cohen hold court. Maybe Blanco will stand corrected after a few listens of Bad as Me. I kind of hope so now. Will report back.

 

 

 

 

 

Lucifer in Starlight

21 Oct

Nico on album cover of 'Chelsea Girls', certainly not to be confused with 'Made in Chelsea'

I was flicking through web pages, looking for nothing in particular, which in ordinary life tends to invoke a receptive and often interesting state of receptivity. Moreover I was tired, and therefore probably susceptible to sentiments that I might normally guard against (but probably do not).

Anyhow, I stumble across a poem by David St. John, not a poet I remember having read before, and fell straight for it: a musical poetry of desire, of neglect, of forgetting – in which nothing sounds quite right: the man at the party is actually saying he prefers Athens to Rome; the woman whose vest “belled below each breast”(?); the disconnect between what he is saying of Rome and what is dancing urgently beneath the text, tugging at memory. What is going on here, as the narrator jumps from place to place, zone to emotional zone? And who is he? Yet I read on, lulled by the easy rhythms as the lines spilled across the page through various absurdities (“it was here I’d chosen / To live when I grew tired of my ancient life / As the Underground Man”) – Velvet Underground?

And then the extraordinary fluidity of the lines that follow the arrival in his apartment at 3.00 a.m. of Nico, with her sunken eyes, Marlene Dietrich vowels, not only in her Velvets persona but more specifically as the lowing chanteuse of the Chelsea Girls album, junk-queen heroine of my adolescence, her somber drone exciting me with visions of decadent and lonely immolations in seedy hotel rooms, dark nights of impossible desire, and the soul-barren broken wanderlust which would soon become mordant reality, and who:

Pulled herself close to me, her mouth almost

            Touching my mouth, as she sighed, “Look … ,”

And deep within the pupil of her left eye,

            Almost like the mirage of a ship’s distant, hanging

Lantern rocking the waves,

I could see, at the most remote end of the receding.

            Circular hallway of her eye, there, at its doorway,

At the small aperture of the black telescope of the pupil,

                        A tiny, dangling crucifix –

Silver, lit by the ragged shards of starlight, reflecting

            In her as quietly as pain, as simply as pain …

 

So, I will copy the poem in full, after all, although I have to keep it in italics, otherwise WordPress will re-align the text. The citation is from the eponymous poem by Meredith (1828-1909) which can be found here, the opening lines of which are: ON a starr’d night Prince Lucifer uprose. / Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend / Above the rolling ball in cloud part screen’d,  / Where sinners hugg’d their spectre of repose.

 

 

Lucifer in Starlight

 

Tired of his dark dominion … 


—George Meredith

 

It was something I’d overheard

One evening at a party; a man I liked enormously

                     Saying to a mutual friend, a woman

Wearing a vest embroidered with scarlet and violet tulips   

          That belled below each breast, “Well, I’ve always   

Preferred Athens; Greece seems to me a country

                     Of the day—Rome, I’m afraid, strikes me   

As being a city of the night … ”

          Of course, I knew instantly just what he meant—   

                     Not simply because I love

Standing on the terrace of my apartment on a clear evening   

          As the constellations pulse low in the Roman sky,   

The whole mind of night that I know so well

                     Shimmering in its elaborate webs of infinite,

Almost divine irony. No, and it wasn’t only that Rome

          Was my city of the night, that it was here I’d chosen   

                     To live when I grew tired of my ancient life

As the Underground Man. And it wasn’t that Rome’s darkness   

                     Was of the kind that consoles so many

          Vacancies of the soul; my Rome, with its endless history   

Of falls … No, it was that this dark was the deep, sensual dark

                     Of the dreamer; this dark was like the violet fur   

Spread to reveal the illuminated nipples of

                     The She-Wolf—all the sequins above in sequence,   

The white buds lost in those fields of ever-deepening gentians,

          A dark like the polished back of a mirror,

                     The pool of the night scalloped and hanging   

Above me, the inverted reflection of a last,

                                                                Odd Narcissus …

                                           One night my friend Nico came by   

Close to three a.m.—As we drank a little wine, I could see

                     The black of her pupils blown wide,   

The spread ripples of the opiate night … And Nico

          Pulled herself close to me, her mouth almost

                     Touching my mouth, as she sighed, “Look … ,”

And deep within the pupil of her left eye,

          Almost like the mirage of a ship’s distant, hanging

                     Lantern rocking with the waves,

I could see, at the most remote end of the receding,

          Circular hallway of her eye, there, at its doorway,   

At the small aperture of the black telescope of the pupil,

                               A tiny, dangling crucifix—   

Silver, lit by the ragged shards of starlight, reflecting

          In her as quietly as pain, as simply as pain …

Some years later, I saw Nico on stage in New York, singing

          Inside loosed sheets of shattered light, a fluid   

Kaleidoscope washing over her—the way any naked,

                     Emerging Venus steps up along the scalloped lip

          Of her shell, innocent and raw as fate, slowly   

Obscured by a florescence that reveals her simple, deadly

                               Love of sexual sincerity …

          I didn’t bother to say hello. I decided to remember   

The way in Rome, out driving at night, she’d laugh as she let

          Her head fall back against the cracked, red leather

                               Of my old Lancia’s seats, the soft black wind   

Fanning her pale, chalky hair out along its currents,

          Ivory waves of starlight breaking above us in the leaves;   

The sad, lucent malevolence of the heavens, falling …

                     Both of us racing silently as light. Nowhere,   

Then forever …

                                           Into the mind of the Roman night.

 

 

 

 

 

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