Thursday, July 9, 2020
Friday, May 22, 2020
Well you’re not so sure that it’s going to work out fine,
in isolation here, for so much time.
You’re longing hard for some normality,
but Covid Nineteen, it doesn’t agree.
Locked down at home, wrapped in your cocoon,
you’re on Covid Honeymoon.
Your loved ones, they love to have you there,
twenty-four-seven, with a mad-eyed stare.
Up so high on the seventeenth floor,
screams and shouts that no-one can ignore.
You thought it would be safe again by June,
you’re on Covid Honeymoon.
Insults and threats, surly vicious tones,
access denied to anybody’s phones,
the one way out of here is locked and latched
and all your benefits have been snatched.
You know now that you’re living with a goon,
you’re on Covid Honeymoon.
Bright boys from Eton, failed to foretell
how close for some this would be to hell.
In between the whiskies and good, strong, British tea,
no space to consider human sanity
primed to burst like a pin-pricked balloon
it’s our Covid Honeymoon
Bold Brexiteers, they failed to foresee
health staff deaths through lack of PPE.
They won’t admit that they might have slowed the pace
if they’d set up for Lockdown with test and trace.
Yet they claim every penny spent’s a boon,
they’re on Covid Honeymoon.
So much is closed down, so many on furlough,
enterprises sinking in the growing debts they owe.
Our framework’s much more fragile than we think.
We didn’t see the abyss, ‘though we stood on the brink.
And no-one can be sure that they’re immune,
we’re on Covid Honeymoon.
So many leaders, so many talking rot,
striving to shore up what they think they’ve got;
so many corporations standing by
waiting to profit while so many people die;
hoping that you’ll still dance to their tune
on your Covid Honeymoon.
This may be our final opportunity
to change the way we run the show, a chance for us to see
the myths we’ve been living in are far from secure –
we’ve mistaken the symptoms for the cure.
But better prepare for more smoke and mirrors soon
as you smile
on this Covid Honeymoon.
Friday, November 8, 2019
For anyone who doesn’t know, Robert Hunter provided the lion’s share of lyrics for the Grateful Dead. His association with guitarist, singer and band leader Jerry Garcia goes back further than the band, to the days when the two of them played in various bluegrass ensembles. They’d gone their separate ways for a while when the Dead kicked off, playing electric blues, soul, folk and pop covers, along with a few tentative songs of their own. He mailed them some lyrics, ‘St Stephen’ and ‘China Cat Sunflower’ amongst them and was subsequently invited to ‘join the band’ as an in-house lyricist.
In a fascinating essay which formed the introduction to ‘The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics’ collection, Hunter explored aspects of songwriting, both his own and others’. His personal strength, he claimed, was ‘a good memory’ – a capacious absorption of folk, pop, blues and jazz lyrics from a range of eras. ‘It’s small wonder,’ he concluded, ‘that my songs are often fraught with allusions’. As indeed they were, from ‘the backwash of Fennario’ to ‘a jackbeat boogie with a two-stroke roll’, he spun and re-spun the language of song, luxuriating in its riches yet somehow creating something that was uniquely his own. Small wonder too that he was the only person – as far as I know – that Bob Dylan ever called upon when he found himself short of lyrics.
His work crossed a broad range of styles. There was the fanciful psychedelia of songs like ‘The Eleven’ (‘Now if the time of the boomerang / Tossed in the night of redeeming’) and ‘Dark Star’ (‘Glass hand dissolving / to ice-petal flowers / revolving’). There were re-writes of folk song staples, characters like Delia DeLyon, Staggerlee, Betty and Dupree examined from angles that blended cosmic truth with an earthy wit. There were close character studies: the down-and-out August West in ‘Wharf Rat’, or the fraught triangular relationship of Chet, Murphy and Roseanne in the lengthy song-suite ‘Amagamalin Street’ (one of his 1970s solo works). Then there were songs of homespun yet elusively authoritative philosophy like ‘The Wheel’ (‘You can’t go back / and you can’t stand still / If the thunder don’t get you / then the lightning will’) and the sublime late Grateful Dead song ‘Days Between’ (‘the reckless are out wrecking / the timid plead their pleas / No one knows much more of this / than anyone can see’). There were finely wrought and unexpected love songs such as ‘Believe It or Not’ (‘I’ll roll up my shirtsleeves / and make my best shot / to show how I love you / believe it or not’) or ‘Standing On the Moon’ – where you don’t realise it’s a love song ‘til you get to the last two lines. There were ballads both mystical and magical, as in New Orleans fantasia ‘Reuben and Cerise’, and poignant, such as ‘Midnight Getaway’ in which the narrator listens as his lover slips out of bed and eventually drives off into the night, yet he does nothing to stop her.
My list is far from complete but long enough, I hope, to give a sense of how immersive and enriching were the worlds Hunter conjured with his words. Throughout his working life, he resolutely refused to explain his songs. ‘I believe,’ he said, ‘that the lyrics themselves say all that wants saying’. In the recent Grateful Dead documentary film ‘Long Strange Trip’ he is seen but briefly and at one point recites the entire lyric of ‘Dark Star’ then looks at the camera with a comment like: ‘So what’s not to understand?’ For a long time he resisted the printing of his lyrics, enjoying the way the mishearing of his words created new possibilities. Interpretations, then, were for his listeners to engage in. He invited, welcomed and enjoyed that sense of creative partnership he generated within them. Though a songwriter first and foremost, his mindset (and a small body of published work) was firmly that of a poet.
As a solo artist and performer, he was – often by his own admission – erratic. An online journal he kept for a number of years in the early 2000s has entries like: ‘A distinctly uneven performance yesterday with some quality highs and abysmal lows.’ What comes through, from both my memories of seeing him live in the 70s and from live recordings, is the passion in his singing. ‘I’m frankly,’ he said, ‘not altogether responsible for what comes out of me when I’m up there. I try to let the spirit move me when it will. Though said force has often got better things to do than wiggle my tongue and fingers.’ At times his voice was warm and thoughtful, with just a touch of Johnny Cash in the tone. At times he bellowed and ranted, as if the spirit was a demon driving him on. In the seventies he worked with various bands (Comfort, Roadhog) and for a year or three in the eighties he hooked up with all-star West Coast band The Dinosaurs – some of whose shows (available on the Live Music Archive, downloaders) I find quite electrifying. But I’ve also read interviews with musicians who, whilst still deeply fond of him, claim that he was a difficult man to perform with, prone to launching into unannounced songs and unexpected variations of tempo.
His own solo records, spanning the 70s, 80s and 90s, were also somewhat variable in quality. Spine tinglers at best, especially the early albums: ‘Tales of the Great Rum Runners’, ‘Tiger Rose’ and ‘Jack O’Roses’, tending at times towards bland arrangements on the later albums. The 1984 double album: ‘Amagamalin Street’ stands separate from the rest, the realisation of one of Hunter’s longer works: a song cycle concerning the three characters mentioned above and featuring fine guitar contributions from both Quicksilver’s John Cipollina and the Airplane/Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen. One for mostly quiet thoughtful listening, the lyrics all in Hunter’s more streetwise storytelling mode. Another delight, and one of his better live performances can be found on the album ‘Box of Rain’.
Outside of music Hunter wrote and published poetry, two books of Rilke translations, at least a couple of unpublished novels, and a collection of 37 frequently surrealist short stories which he offered in batches to online subscribers in the early 2000s, before he quit keeping a presence on the internet. I haven’t read all of them but of those I have a personal favourite is ‘To Sign a River’ in which a graffiti artist, nom de plume Rock Rooster, sets out to sign the Hudson River. ‘He doesn’t want to sign it on the bank or any other stationary point like a prominent rock – but ineradicably in the great surging mist of the moving water itself.’ With the aid of a cross-cut saw and ‘what looks like half an iron lung’ he succeeds, carving into the river his tag. ‘And there it remains to this very day, if you know where to look and the sky is the correct shade neither of gray nor of not gray.’ As in so many of his songs Hunter plays the conceptual game of Zen: impossible juxtapositions, mind-boggling contradictions – you can’t get your head round them, you have to reach out with some other part of your consciousness. He also scripted one comic book, ‘Dog Moon’, published by DC Vertigo comics in 1996, in which he set himself the Oulipean task of using only monosyllabic words. Artwork was by Timothy Truman, who has also illustrated a number of Grateful Dead lyrics. It’s a long while since I read it. Memory tells me that it was not entirely successful as comics go, but one day I hope to read it again and who knows what I may discover twenty three or more years later.
But it’s songwriting he’ll be remembered for, and after his close partnership with Jerry Garcia was severed by the guitarist’s death, he kept this up apace. In my blogs on Phil Lesh (4-6-18), Mickey Hart, (18-6-18), Bill Kreutzmann (2-7-18) and Bob Weir (16-7-18) I covered his contributions to their post-1975 works, and if you add them up that’s an output that a lot of younger songwriters would envy – much of it profound and resonant, some of it rather under-used by his collaborators. Not so singer/guitarist David Nelson, with whom he wrote songs for both the revived New Riders of the Purple Sage and Nelson’s own band, the majority of which have appeared on albums and remain in the performing repertoire to this day. In the last of his journal entries that I know of (January 08), Hunter wrote: ‘Writing a new heap of songs for others lately and reckon I’ve found my second wind. Who? Wait and see. It’s not good luck to say. For a long time I couldn’t think what to write about, but then thought “Oh yeah. Writing about something is what you do to pass time while you’re waiting for a real song to come.” They land like eagles on your budgie perch. You know them by the way the branch snaps.’
In fact these collaborations were well under way, most notably a partnership over some twelve years or more with country/bluegrass singer Jim Lauderdale. His own career well established by the late 90s, Lauderdale approached Hunter for lyrics to songs he was writing for venerable country singers the Stanley Brothers. ‘Because,’ he said ‘I knew how much Jerry Garcia had liked the Stanley brothers and also how deeply rooted Robert was in all sorts of bluegrass and country music’. Hunter’s response was keen and from there the collaboration accelerated, beginning in full with ‘Headed for the Hills’ in 2004 and continuing through another five jointly written albums, the last of which appeared in 2013. The majority of these were in the country/bluegrass styles with which Lauderdale is most closely associated, and his singing, whilst I’ve come to like it a great deal, may not be everyone’s cup of tea. All of them have their delights, but the one I’d recommend to Gonzo readers is ‘Patchwork River’ (2010), a more rock-oriented album that features one-time Elvis guitarist James Burton on several cuts, and a consistently strong set of songs, headed by the powerful title track, a state of the nation song on a par with some of the best Grateful Dead material. Sample verse: ‘Me and Joe Farmer walked down together / Talk about wealth and the worry it brings / Lack of satisfaction and other things / Vision is simple by moonlight, everything black and white / No colors to construe, just a range black and blue / Softer tones, fewer voices / Freedom from too many choices / New born moon, a silver sliver / Gleamin’ on the Patchwork River.’ As ever, lyrics that you can’t quite make sense of, but somehow you know just what they mean.
Elsewhere, Hunter was dipping into songwriting with a variety of performers. Four songs with Little Feat on their 2012 album ‘Rooster Rag’; eight out of ten tracks on Phil & Friends keyboard player Rob Barraco’s ‘When We All Come Home’; one track with Los Lobos on their 2010 album ‘Tin Can Trust’, and one more with Bruce Hornsby in 2009. He apparently also wrote one with Elvis Costello, but I’m not sure if it found release. And there were more, including a few he sang a few times himself.
A backtrack, now, to an earlier album. ‘Rio Lindo’ by a fairly obscure Californian band called Moonlight Rodeo. I don’t know much about this lot but I guess Hunter’s participation was down to a friendship with the band’s core members. His lyrics grace half its songs. It’s an affable album of low-key Americana, on the whole. Laid back – as folk used to say. Like a lot of his work with Jim Lauderdale, Hunter’s words may sometimes seem off the cuff, a little slipshod here and there. But then there are also a host of quotable couplets. Even back in 02 or 03 when this album was made, he was – amongst other matters - contemplating his own mortality. Something about being a poet, I reckon. “I may go straight to heaven / When I kick this mortal shell./.Or I may lay low in Texas / What the hell.”
Looking back, as an ageing UK Deadhead, on the whole phenomenon as I experienced it, I find my attitude has been modified by what we face in the present. Watching the ‘Long Strange Trip’ movie, for example, I started to think about the fossil fuel products that must have been consumed – by both band, road crew and fans - during an average Grateful Dead tour back in the day. They presented themselves as, and in many ways were, an alternative way of looking at the world – but were nevertheless dependent on America’s economic wealth to do as they did. They were compromised, as most of us are. Part of Jerry Garcia’s downfall, I’ve read, was his awareness that he was seen as a guru/leader figure and yet he knew pretty well that he wasn’t. That kind of thing can rip some people apart.
Robert Hunter was warier of the potential slips, able to step out like his fabled ‘Promontory Rider’ and gain a greater perspective. Careful with his words, despite – as a performer – being prone to states of possession. I hope his like will be seen again, in one form or another. But it may take some time. A lot more people than just myself will miss that sense that there are more songs to come from him. All the same, we have more than enough to be going on with. Thanks Robert. It was a hell of a show.
Monday, September 23, 2019
Here's another daft Shaftesbury tale - this time for a Christmas anthology, and you can probably tell how much I like telling Christmas stories from what follows. It is, however, redeemed by a very fine illustration from Ella McDonough.
Box sets, Bicycles and Banjos
It is not obvious, unless you have carefully surveyed street maps old and new, that the part of the A350 that runs through Shaftesbury and extends from the Ivy Cross roundabout to the junction with Barton Hill is known as ‘Little Content Lane’. Though buildings that face onto this stretch of road are sparse now, there was a time, long ago, when Little Content Lane boasted a sizeable population.
The majority of them took exception to the name and wanted it changed. “It demeans us,” they said. “We really don’t understand why it should be so named, we did not participate in the process of naming it and we think it ill serves our town.” It came to the point where they felt that something had to be done. It happened that Christmas was coming and the last thing they wanted was for Santa to get the wrong idea about their neighbourhood. Why would he and his elves deliver anything of substance to Little Content Lane, when they could bestow their presents on Great Lane or Gold Hill? Something definitely had to be done. They put up notices all around Shaftesbury calling for a special meeting of the Town Council.
At the time, the Mayor of Shaftesbury was, in fact, a mare. This was the result of a local squire stating: “Sooner my grey mare than any of those lefty liberal types!" and pulling the necessary strings to ensure that in the event of such an emergency, Mayor Mare would be appointed. Under Mayor Mare’s rule, any progressive or even vaguely sensible proposal was met with a chorus of nays. For those who preferred the status quo, it was indeed a whinny-whinny situation.
Now the people of Little Content Lane had amongst them a champion, a man by the name of Horace Oats. Horace Oats made a careful study of the procedural regulations governing the naming of streets and the more he studied the more irate he became. “They have condemned us,” he exclaimed, “to receive mere stocking-fillers from Santa, whereas the folk on Great Lane and Gold Hill will be given box sets, bicycles and banjos.”
Thus it was that, on the evening appointed for the special meeting, the people of Little Content Lane marched en masse to the Town Hall, carrying banners that said: ‘We want box sets!’ ‘We want bicycles!’ ‘We want banjos!’ This caused some perplexity amongst the handful of town councillors who had turned out for the meeting. “What on earth are these idiots on about?” they muttered to one another, raising their eyebrows and rolling their eyeballs.
In order to comprehend the proceedings at any such meeting, Mayor Mare relied heavily on the services of the Town Clerk. Her name was Sandra and she was a horse-whisperer. Heroically multi-tasking, she would not only record the minutes but, in a hoarse whisper, translate them for the benefit of Mayor Mare. As Horace Oats made his presentation, Sandra did her very best to convey its essence to her four legged superior. When he had finished, a series of nuanced snorts provided Sandra with a translatable mayoral statement.
It was clear, she said, that the citizens of Little Content Lane were labouring under a misapprehension. The implication of inferiority that the name bestowed was only to be found if one placed verbal emphasis on the first syllable of the second word (content). Place it on the second syllable of that word (content) and the implication changed considerably. The name was a tribute, she told them, to a people who strived to better themselves and their environment and for whom ‘second best’ simply would not do. And since the name had existed for a considerable length of time already, what proof had they that Santa had ever delivered any fewer box sets, bicycles and banjos than he did to the residents of Gold Hill or Great Lane? Indeed, many of those attending the meeting had arrived on bicycles, were members of the town’s highly accomplished banjo band and had left family members at home watching box sets.
At this Horace Oats was rendered speechless and the protesters deeply abashed. How could they have been so foolish? Leaving their banners behind them they returned to their homes, determined to use the power of their discontent to better serve the town where they dwelt. And that Christmas, when Santa and his elves delivered candlesticks, catamarans and cardigans with absolute equality throughout Shaftesbury, it was clear that their lot was no worse than that of any other part of the town.
Mayor Mare was re-elected for several years running and, though she is largely forgotten now, was considered one of the finest dignitaries ever to have held that title. In one respect, however, her legend lives on. To this very day you have only to walk by a field full of sheep and you will hear her name being repetitively celebrated. “Mehh! Mehh!”
Monday, September 2, 2019
Rats! Didn't quite manage an August blog in August. Here it is in September. Piece I wrote as a contribution to a collection of tales, tall and otherwise, by local writers - all connected with the North Dorset town of Shaftesbury, where I currently live.
The Lane That Runs Out of Time
We don’t know, of course, exactly where it will emerge in 2020. It could appear abutted onto one of the leafy lanes that run down the slopes to St.James. It might just turn up in the town centre, tucked into that grey stone block of buildings between Trinity Church and the High Street. Or perhaps, seeking the novelty of the new, between identikit housing on Rifles Road or Badger Walk in that forlorn estate to the east of the town. Wherever it appears, it will remain accessible – if you can detect it – for just twenty four hours, and then it will disappear without so much as a puff of smoke.
No one knows where it goes when it is not present in Shaftesbury. Its residents have no interest in telling us. When it last showed up, back in 2016, it was down in Enmore Green, on Well Lane between two of those old stone houses you encounter just before the A30 cuts it off. When it shows, it has this knack of looking like it’s always been there. You might even walk down it without ever realising that you have entered a numinous zone. When it’s here, it’s very Shaftesbury. A mingled mix of architectures that span the centuries – old stone, red brick, timber clad, or deco glass and concrete. You can turn a lot of corners in this town and not know what you’re about to encounter, so this little lane is perfectly camouflaged, even managing to dovetail with the newer estates if it finds it necessary to do so.
Its residents are a motley lot, but they function as a community and it’s doubtful whether any of them would ever want to move house. So you’ll not see any roadside signs from Connells or Chaffers amongst the slightly scruffy hedges or low stone walls with their surrounding adornments of snowdrops, crocuses, primroses and daffs. Wherever it is they are when they are not in Shaftesbury, it seems to suit them just as well. But on that day when they get here, you can rest assured that they will nearly all, individually or collectively, make a pilgrimage to the Bargain’s shop to stock up on woolly hats, candles, batteries, hair adornments and post-cards with images that look three-dimensional. Check it out on the day. But mind, it can get pretty crowded in there, both tills in constant use.
Take a wander up the street, round the corner and down the steps to Underground Music, just above Gold Hill, and you’ll encounter at some point in the day one of the lane’s most colourful residents. He’s getting on a bit now, his once imposing black moustache and hair now a thinner grey. But under a multicoloured coat he’ll be sporting a dazzling tee shirt and a middle eastern waistcoat. And with them wearing a psychedelic pendant and an orange baseball cap. For all the signs of age, his jaw is firm, his face strong and somehow tanned. He’s come to buy reeds for his flute, has Raja Ram, and perhaps a hand-drum or two.
Pearl, his next door neighbour, scours the charity shops, picks out the funkiest threads she can find – fringed items a speciality – and with a tilt of her tinted glasses and a friendly cackle, hoarsely asks the attendants if she can try them on. By the time she heads back to the lane, her wild hair blowing in the breeze, she’ll be toting a sackful of outfits and a carrier bag laden with quarts of Jack Daniels from Shaftesbury Wines.
Not all the residents who spread out through the town that day are quite as colourful as these two. Charles in his sombre black suit displays only a hint of colour with the rakish neckerchief knotted to the left of his Adam’s apple. He too has just emerged from the wine shop, where they have slipped him a bottle of absinthe from under the counter. He spends much of the day in his favoured parts of the town, St. James Street and Bell Street, where he feels a little more at home, a little safer from the flowers of evil. In contrast Buster, in his ill fitting suit and boater, spends several hours in the Barton Hill skate park, where he shows the young ‘uns on scooters and skateboards hilariously but exactly how it’s done.
Marilyn and Audrey select the finest lingerie that Shirley Alum has to offer, while Coco stares in mute disgust through the windows of Superdrug. Dylan spends the entire day in the Mitre and John Pierpont calls in at Lloyds Bank to check the interest on a sum of money he deposited in 1904. You can hardly get across town without bumping into one or another of these folk. And they are friendly, personable types on the whole, happy to invite you to the parties they’ll be holding in the lane that evening.
But here a word of caution. If you choose to join them in their revelry, be sure to leave before midnight. For if you are still there when March 1st commences, you will not see Shaftesbury again for 1,460 days and nights. But at least you might find out where it is they go for all that length of time, those extraordinary people who live on Leap Year Lane.
Saturday, July 20, 2019
This reluctance on our part is not primarily of an ideological nature, at least it isn’t for me. It’s just that somewhere during the first decade of this century I decided I’d had enough of constant change, having to learn how to operate new devices or come to terms with new systems on the existing ones. There was also a sense that they somehow swallowed up time, time that I’d rather spend not looking at any kind of screen or even having it flickering in the background while I listen to disembodied music that’s stored in a cloud. And yes, at this point a little ideology began to creep in when I learned how minuscule the payments are from the likes of Spotify to the musicians whose work they peddle.
But now the ideology is kicking in harder, as we both feel strongly that the ongoing CO2 emissions related climatic breakdown can barely be prevented from causing irreversible planet-wide disaster, if at all. An article in this week’s ‘New Scientist’ nails it. The transmission and viewing of online video, it tells us, results in emissions of 300 million tonnes of CO2 per year, nearly 1 per cent of the global total. Its carbon footprint, we are also informed, is equivalent to that of Spain. If you account that in to the production of all digital technologies and the power to run them, you’re looking at a responsibility for around 4 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, all this is set to rise with the continuing craving for higher resolution video etc.
Somehow – as a result of marketing, as a result of politics and corporate companies’ clinging to ‘business-as usual’ – we are en masse blinded to the real price there is to pay for services we apparently take for granted. The same thing applies to air flight. An article in today’s Guardian points out that a return flight from London to Rome ‘carries a carbon footprint of 234kg per passenger – more than the (individual) average produced by citizens of 17 countries annually’. Air flight too is on the increase. This stuff can’t go on. The tipping point will be reached – if it hasn’t already – and then the shit will hit the fan.
Okay, getting back to streaming and online video… I’m aware of the bubble effect. I have this opinion and within my bubble the evidence I want to support my opinion tends to come my way. And I’m aware that the NS article is based on research commissioned by The Shift Project, a French think tank advocating a shift to a post-carbon economy. But an online search on the words ‘carbon footprint online video’ elicits a slew of headings referring to similar research drawing similar conclusions. The only shred of hope showing up with the heading that ‘smarter web design’ could reduce the consumption of energy involved. Well, perhaps there is a technological fix that might help – there’s usually someone somewhere with an as-yet untested idea or two of this nature. The question is – can it be made to work against the background of this exponential rise in consumption? As for the completely contradictory evidence, it’s proving hard to find.
But of course my beloved CDs and DVDs don’t come without a cost to the environment. I’m glad that fewer and fewer CDs these days are packaged in those ridiculous plastic ‘jewel cases’ that the plastics industry managed to promote to the fore back in the 80s when the technology was new, but there’s still the footprint of manufacture and there’s still a lot of plastic involved. I don’t have the time or interest to find out what the relative costs are – given that, as I made clear at the start of this piece, my ‘virtue’ in this matter is entirely down to coincidence. All I really know is that if we don’t start to discover the true cost of what’s being peddled to us as consumers, and if we don’t modify our behaviour and reduce consumption in the light of this, we – and who knows how many other species on this planet – have had it. End of story.