Monday, September 26, 2016

Three Strong Handshakes

Three Strong Handshakes

Though I am perfectly happy to sign copies of ‘Wilful Misunderstandings’ on request (you too can get a signed copy by going to and shelling out the requisite spondulicks), I don’t go in for acquiring signed copies of books, CDs or works of art to any great extent myself.  The artefact itself is perfectly satisfactory in my estimation.  As a person who supplements his living by selling items on eBay I may possibly be shooting myself in the foot here, but it would seem pretty crass to me, getting a creator to sign his/her work simply to get a bigger return when I sell it on.

Now and again I end up with a signed copy, one way or another: work produced by friends of mine; items that arrive by mail order ready signed – that sort of thing.  Once, recently, I bought a CD after a show by a singer songwriter who I admire.  The sales person passed it on immediately to the artist to sign and I felt that if then asked him not to bother, I might just cause offence.

But instead, over the last couple of decades, I have become at least sporadically a collector of handshakes.  I thought this week I’d write a few words about three of the prize items in my collection.

The first took place in 1999..  Since I came across them back in the 1970s I have been passionately fond of the music of The Holy Modal Rounders.  Their acid culture soaked take on the songs they and many others first found in Harry Smith’s 1952 ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’ reached me slowly, via the ‘Bird Song’ on the ‘Easy Rider’ soundtrack, and finally blowing me away with the wonderful ‘Alleged in Their Own Time’ album.  Rough edged and perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, that 1974 recording fills me with utter joi-de-vivre every time I hear it.

Sadly, I’ve never seen them perform live and probably never will since founder members Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel no longer work together (long story!).  Of the two, it was Stampfel who interested me the most.  Scratchy as sandpaper, coarse as a dog fight, his unique vocals, fiddle and banjo playing never failed to delight me.  That he turned out to be a witty, erudite man, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of music just confirmed my admiration.
In 1999, at a venue in Bristol, I got a chance to see him at last.  He had formed a short lived duo, the Du-Tels, with former Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas and I guess they were loosely promoting their one and only album.  The show was no disappointment.  Between songs, Stampfel was affable and informative.  Performing, he frequently appeared utterly deranged – swinging his white fiddle about between bouts of playing with such abandon that at one point Lucas had to duck mid-solo.  It was nearing Christmas, and his (spontaneous?) near demented version of ‘God Rest You Merry Gentlemen’ will live with me until death or brain decay take their toll.  Readers, you should have been there too.

Before the gig I’d already seen him talking cheerfully with fans in the hall, so confirmed that he was not a man with any airs and graces.  Post gig I approached him for a brief chat myself, and he was lovely – genuinely pleased, I think, to be appreciated.  I commiserated with him about the difficulty he was having at the time in finding a release for a third album by one of his bands – the Bottlecaps – and he told me the story at length.  But others were waiting to speak to him and it was time to move on.  He put out his hand and… so began my collection.  Bless you, Peter.

Next one to ‘put it there’ probably needs less by way of introduction.  I’m guessing that anyone who chooses to read this blog will likely be familiar with The Incredible String Band.  I never got to see them in concert until quite late in their career – the mid seventies, when they had all or mostly become somewhat steeped in Scientology.  Too far back for me to remember for sure, but I think the gig was pretty good.  Post show they made themselves available and I got an opportunity to talk with founder member Robin Williamson.  I asked him about Scientology and he subsequently wrote me a letter about it.  But I had recently read Cyril Vosper’s ‘The Mind Benders’ exposing the exploitative nature of the organisation.  I felt that Robin and the ISB were proselytising, and my interest in them waned as a result.

But sometime in the 80s, I think, Robin began to re-invent himself and I saw him do a solo gig at the College of Storytellers in London.  He told such wonderful tales, accompanying them with his harp playing and occasional songs, and all with such charm that I fell in love with him as a performer all over again.  I’ve seen him a good few times since, but one of the last occasions was in South Wales at the Pontardawe Arts Centre – a venue I often frequented.  They’d set up the night as a sort of mock medieval feast, with a group of young female harpists, a stew and dark bread meal at long tables, and Robin as the post-prandial bardic entertainer.  It was a good night and he excelled – his repertoire by then ranging widely from his own material, old and new, to blues and rock covers he’d appropriated and adapted.  At the end of the evening I felt a strong urge to say thank-you.  We spoke briefly (I didn’t ask him about Scientology this time) and closed with a hand shake.  Number two in my selection.

Number three took place just three days ago.  Me and the light of my life drove from my current home in Shaftesbury to Bridgewater for a performance by Peggy Seeger.  I’ve known of her, of course, for many, many years and knew she was worthy of respect, but had heard very little of her music beyond a few of her most well-known songs.  My good companion is more familiar with her work than I am.

So I wasn’t sure what to anticipate.  Peggy is 81 now, and like some older performers I’ve seen in recent years, I half expected her to be frail, wavery, and reliant on a supporting of a band of musicians for a short, safe set of songs.  How wrong I was.  From the moment she appeared on stage she was authoritative, yet warm and friendly.  She got the audience loving her, if they hadn't been that way inclined already, and doing whatever she wanted them to in the way of chorus singalongs, and ensuring there were no empty seats in the front rows.

I daresay she has her share of the problems which come with her years, but she seemed sprightly, dressed elegantly, and introduced her songs with measured commentary, crafted anecdotes, wry wit and warm humour.  She skilfully played a variety of instruments, guitar and piano mostly, but also button accordion (I think!), autoharp and an unusual looking banjo with a long neck.  Her singing was spot on, melodic and affecting with barely a trace of age in her voice.  She performed alone mostly, with occasional accompaniment by her support act – a young Virginian musician who complemented her pretty well.

Unfamiliar as I am with it, I’d guess she played selections from across her entire career.  Plenty of traditional material, including one fine unaccompanied song and one or two she learned from brother Pete, but also her own songs in various idioms.  Her politics were clearly expressed in a song aimed at climate change deniers and another based on the words of a character she encountered while participating at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, back in the 1980s.  A couple of songs were drawn from her long commitment to feminism, the second an interestingly nuanced take – concerning as it did a man who disagrees strongly with her views but remains a good friend.  She also read at intervals from a large folder of writings and clippings, containing a good deal of wisdom and insight.

Highlights for me were her banjo playing on a song which I think I recall she introduced simply as ‘Folk Blues’ (speedy, rippling runs, bar after bar, in the style you might hear on a record by Hobart Smith); a moving rendition of Ewan MacColl’s song ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’; and towards the end, back on that banjo, but with guitar accompaniment, a fine version of one of my favourite folk songs ‘The Cuckoo’.  At times she was playing, eyes closed, clearly in a sort of rapture.  So were we.

I bought myself a copy of her interesting new CD and intend fully to dip into her back catalogue when I can.  In the foyer, awaiting my companion who was making a necessary visit before our lengthy journey home, I saw Peggy sat at a table waiting to sign CDs.  There was, I guess, but a brief hiatus when no one was approaching her.  She sat, poised and ready to facilitate – though probably weary.  I took the opportunity to step over and thank her for a wonderful evening.  It wasn’t a conversation – she just thanked me as performers do for positive feedback – then put out her hand and gave me a firm handshake.  A handshake I’ll treasure.

As I do all three.  Hugs are great, of course.  But those handshakes, they mean a lot to me.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Tricks of Confidence

Tricks of Confidence

Confidence is an unreliable beast.  Sometimes you might feel like you’re brimming with it – you’re a cool operator, you’ll deliver the goods – no problem.  Sometimes, just when you think you could do with a boost, it’s gone – with not so much as a vapour trail in its wake.  Just what was it that made you have the temerity to think that you were a contender?  Wake up, sniff that java, you’re crap and don’t you just know it.

In the business of writing – and I’m talking stories, poems, whatever here though it could apply in any context I guess – the reliability wears particularly thin.  Or so I find.  Of writers I’ve met, there isn’t a single decent one who doesn’t at least occasionally question the validity or effectiveness of their own work.  Most go further, trudging the length of this cul-de-sac to its bitter end with alarming regularity.  Some even give up entirely.  And I know that feeling pretty well.  I did so myself, except that several years later I decided to have another go.

In the last month or so, I’ve come across this problem affecting a couple of writers with whom I’m acquainted.  One was a young woman, an active and enthusiastic member of one of the writing groups I attend.  We had set up a public reading event, meeting up beforehand to read our work to one another and shape it into a programme as best we could.  All set, I thought, we’ve got a tidy package here (‘though I wish I’d come up with something even better myself.)

A few days before the event, she emails apologetically.  She’s decided her piece doesn’t match the quality of everyone else’s and she wants to withdraw.  Fortunately I manage to convince her that she’s wrong and she agrees to my request to participate.  She reads at the event, and her voice sounds firm and confident – whatever trepidation she’s felt in the build-up.  Her piece goes down well with the audience, and I even find myself appreciating qualities in it that I hadn’t noticed before.  Qualities that come out in the rhythm of reading it aloud.

Just this last weekend I’ve been attending a two day poetry event, with some excellent guest readers (who might just pop up in a future blog) but also an open-floor spot at which most of us took advantage of the offer of a 5 minute spot to read our own poems.  Among those who didn’t, was an older woman whose work I’ve really admired since I joined the writing group she usually attends.  To my mind, she writes with clarity, sensitivity, a fine grasp of language and with some very worthwhile and pertinent observations to make.  I have mentally compared my own writing to hers (as you do), and felt that I fall far short of her abilities.  On top of this, she is a woman of great poise, charm and elegance.

In one of the breaks after the open-floor readings were done, I told her I was sorry not to have heard her read.  She started out by saying she’d just been too busy to prepare anything – which I should think is true, as she’s involved in some other time-consuming projects and is the mother of two young children besides.  But then I was shocked as she went on to tell me that she’d been thinking lately that her work just wasn’t up to the standards of everyone else in the writing group and that she didn’t feel enough confidence to get up and read it.  I did my best to make my own positive feelings about her work known to her and also to say a word or two about this whole confidence thing, and how the lack of it was, in my view, somehow part of the territory in the business of creative writing.

And I’ve been thinking about it some more since then.

Amongst my oldest and dearest friends is a guy who for the last 30 years or so has been afflicted by what is generally termed ‘bi-polar disorder’.  He takes medication to keep himself functioning and has the advantage of clear insight into his condition.  When he is in a down phase, it can be overwhelmingly bleak but he knows that if he (metaphorically) grits his teeth and sees it through it will pass.  When he hears voices he knows they are the product of something going on in his own brain.  I jokingly tell him he’s the sanest madman I’ve ever known.

I wonder if we writers can take something from him.  When the ‘voice’ in our heads pops up, telling us we’re crap and that our works are folly, can we not recognise it for what it is – a mental process that is triggered within us and not necessarily to be taken at face value?  If we can do this, we can maybe also accept that even when it goes away and we are back to enthusing about what we’re doing, it will return – this feeling – and get ready to face it when it does.

And it’s not like it’s completely negative, anyway.  I made a point of saying in the second paragraph, that I could not think of a single decent writer who escapes this feeling entirely.  There are useful aspects to it.  We ought to be able to recognise our limitations and very importantly when we need to go the extra mile (or get help) to make a piece of writing better.  That negative voice can also be the useful and important voice of self-criticism.  Without it, we could easily end up being crap and not realising it at all.

A conversation on this topic during an interruption to my writing here has added a further positive aspect.  The idea that being in this intensely self critical state of mind can actually inform our writing.  Because the feeling is pretty much universal, at least among those who have some degree of sensitivity and discernment.  By allowing it to play its part in our nature, there will be something in what we write that speaks to those who feel it too.  It’s a part of our fellowship as human beings.

But then, what do I know, eh?  I really should be writing a decent blog instead of all this rubbish.  Yeah.  I’ve really fucked up today.  I’m not sure I’m gonna post this one at all.  It’s been a complete waste of time, it has.  Nobody will want to read it. Will they?

Monday, September 12, 2016

I Hope to Write a Garden

I Hope to Write a Garden.

I hope to write a garden.  I hope to know its secrets – its rough, intriguing stonework features that hide in clustered grasses; its shrouded walls where dense ivy gives way to clambering clematis and honeysuckle hoards; its winding footways, its nooks and crescents, its shadows and sunlight rippled clearings.  I hope to roam into its depths, where purple cones of bright buddleia are cocked on twigs; crimson and many toned azaleas dazzle the eye; and sunflowers – proud of their packed bulk – stand tall above all.  I hope to write gazebos, elegantly latticed; enclosed sculptures of wild green men and weathered, sessile buddhas; sudden fountains of clear, cold water.

I hope to write my way into this peace and seclusion, this haven of mild breezes, buzzing bees, and darting damselflies.  I hope to write its subtle scents, vying in the warm air for contact with the cilia and damp, inner skin of my nostrils.  That jasmine tinge, that florid efflux with its shifts and tints that overwhelm and disappear as if at whim.  I hope to write sparrows, thrushes and linnets, warblers and finches, all flitting through my bright, bushy maze, with their songs of cadenced chirrup, jabber and high pitched rill.  To see them flash from cover, gather in groups, peck, preen and suddenly scatter as if by an unseen signal.

To plant for my pleasure with no wish to reap, simply to sow and watch as seedling stretches to stem and branch, to leaf and flower and fruit; as seasons work their passage and weather takes its many turns.  To watch from unseen vantage, as yellow caterpillar squirms, green shield bug struts and striated snail slowly slides to extend its glistening trail.

I hope to write all this and more, as I stare from my window at a small rectangle of patchy lawn and a straight stretch of stone paving with a scattering of scrawny weeds that grow through the cracks.  I look down at the unforgiving fencing that encloses this arid scrap from the rectangles of my neighbours’ gardens.  At the over-sized plastic waste bins that I have nowhere else to store.  At the bin bags of clippings that I have yet to take to the dump; the corner bed where I do my best to preserve what’s left of some other gardener’s plantings or what the wind blows in to grow.  And as I look my vision fades, my words become meaningless marks on the page.

I hope to write a garden, to type its mass of species, to dig beds and seed them with but a biro in my hands.  To make terraces of A4 reams, raised beds of notebooks, dictionaries and volumes of reference.  To make archways of essays, pillars of poems, ponds of prose and the twisting footpaths of storylines.

I hope to write a garden.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Cambodian Psychedelia

Cambodian Psychedelia

I am a non-musician but a serious fan of a wide range of music from a wide range of cultures and traditions.  That said, I don’t get as much time as I once did for listening.  Nevertheless, I retain a seemingly unending curiosity about and desire to hear music and set aside what time I can to do so.

Thus, last night I began a serious listen to a compilation in the esteemed and generally excellent Rough Guide series that goes out under the heading: ‘Psychedelic Cambodia’.  I’d bought it in part because a friend of mine had played me an album by Dengue Fever and it had produced quite a high reading on the old thrillometer.

Dengue Fever, a mixed race, USA based band, have made something of a name for themselves in the last few years.  I hope to find time to hear more of their work, but know that it is based in part on a relatively short lived interlude in the musical history of Cambodia which occurred between the Khmer independence from the French and the arrival of the Khmer Rouge.  This was in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  And that music is mainly what is featured on this compilation.

Psychedelia?  I can’t say for sure.

If you’ve read the ‘Ptoof!’ piece on my website about Western psychedelic music and culture, you’ll know something of the style of music to which I consider the term is genuinely applicable.  Whilst it is not necessary to be on or even to have experienced the effects of psychedelic drugs to play it, it is music which is produced with a layering and attention to detail that – when listened to in a psychedelically enhanced or even a simply mindful state of reception – becomes evident and apparent.  Psychedelic music works like those ‘Magic Eye’ 3D pictures that on first appearance is but a pattern or random visual ‘noise’ on the page.  You hold one close to your eyes, gradually move it away and at a certain distance, with the right degree of concentration, you find yourself looking at a 3D image, previously unseen.  Sometimes in the music those ‘hidden’ elements are tricks of the mix, sound effects or vocal elements picked up only if you are paying close attention, sometimes they are contained in the weave of improvising instruments.

This compilation contains a dozen songs from the original era of this music, and three by modern bands, recreating and developing the style.  The older songs (several tracks by key singers Ros Seresyothea and Pan Ron, plus a couple more) may or may not have been intentionally psychedelic.  In the words of compiler Sean Hocking, they blend ‘elements of traditional Khmer music with the sounds of rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll’.  They do so with a quality of exotic beauty, combining often-female vocals, delicate and winsome, with a mixture of traditional and rock/pop instrumentation.  I’d say that what largely earns the ‘psychedelic’ tag are the instrumental breaks, featuring guitarists who play in a style that clearly resembles that of, say, Barry Melton of Country Joe and the Fish, or keyboard breaks reminiscent of the Doors’ Ray Manzarek.

Well, there I am listening to these songs and thinking: ‘Wow!  This really is great stuff.’  It veers between a charmingly dated 60s kitsch pop feel, the purity and ‘folk’ feel of the Cambodian instrumentation, and these wonderful, wild instrumental breaks.  Intentional or not, it satisfies many of my psychedelic criteria.  Particularly with the strange dreamlike feeling engendered by well known western song tunes that have been co-opted into this music (such as Pan Ron’s ‘Kom Veacha Tha Sneha Knom’ which is credited as traditional but is clearly the tune of ‘Bang Bang’ – as sung in the west by both Cher and Terry Reid).  But there’s something that bothers me too.  Something that stops being able to enjoy it fully.

I don’t have the same problem with the work of the modern bands – the aforementioned Dengue Fever or the trancey tracks by Cambodian Space Project and the Terence McKenna sampling Dub Addiction.  That material all swoops and swerves into my ears delightfully, with the full benefit of modern production techniques.

No, the problem with the original stuff is not its sound but the story that goes with it.  The majority of these musicians were to become victims of Pol Pot’s genocide regime.  They were executed by the Khmer Rouge.  I cannot get this fact out of my mind as I listen.  It brings a dark edge to work whose main attribute is a quality of light grace and delightful celebration.  A taint I am unable to ignore.

I will continue to listen to it.  Maybe that feeling will pass.  I hope so.  Those musicians would have wanted their music to be heard after their deaths, I’m sure.  As did, according to Sean Hocking, ‘the Khmer people themselves who hid records or took them overseas and kept them as treasures of a lost past’.  My gratitude is to all of them, those who died perhaps purely for the sake of this music, and those who took risks to preserve the recordings.

As for Dengue Fever et al – looks like I’m going to need more room on my shelves.

Toodle pip to one and all.