It’s Don Van Vliet week here at Riverboat Towers – another Captain: Captain Beefheart, of course. A serious listening session, no doubt, so I’m easing myself in gently with the Booglarizer’s most accessible album, and a classic to boot. Perversely (for an artist where perversity is a regular occurrence) it didn’t chart in the UK, whereas more experimental ‘difficult’ albums did. I’ll get round to those later in the week, topping it all off with ‘Trout Mask Replica’, but if there’s a Beefheart album I’d recommend, ‘Clear Spot‘ is the one. Buy it right now, you’ll get ‘The Spotlight Kid’ on the same CD.
And to get right down to it, there’s something about ‘Trout Mask Replica’ that eludes me. I understand that he taught the band how to play that way, and that, as free-form as it sounds, it’s all been mapped out, a strange and arcane map for sure, but a map just the same. But I haven’t, up to now, ever ‘got it’. There’s also the nagging feeling that advocates of the record are just so far up their own arse and using it as a tool to berate the intelligence of those baffled by TMR and assert their own evident superiority. We’ll see how I get along listening to it this time around.
But for now, here’s the Captain with the late period Magic Band (Richard Snyder and Moris Tepper on guitars) on a French TV show in 1980. Listen to it rumble. Love those glass and steel fingers. ‘Big Eyed Beans From Venus’.
I’d never seen Bob Dylan in concert, but that changed last weekend. He had been here a few weeks previously to play our enormo-dome, but since every report I’d read about the place includes some mention of the execrable sound quality (yes, Vector Arena management, I’m talking about your hall), we didn’t want to lose our Bob virginity, so to speak, at a terrible venue.
Joy was unconfined when the hardest working man in show business (now that James has gone) booked two additional dates at our fine 2000-seat Civic Theatre.. on Sunday, twenty rows back, nestled in to one side of the mixing desk, we settled in to enjoy the show.
I’d read about how there’s not much communication going on on stage and how Bob plays the songs the way he wants to, not the way you want him to. Let me take a pot shot those two particular points of view right here..
One: Bob’s current band knows what it is doing, and so does Bob. He might throw an extra bar into a blues now and again but, hey, it’s the blues. I’m reminded at this juncture of a story of Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins, delivering a withering stare at the bunch of white boys backing him who dared to suggest a twelve bar blues should be exactly that, and reminding them, fearsomely, that “Lightnin’ change when Lightnin’ want to”. Bob does that too. And the band changed with him.
Two: They’re Bob’s songs. He’s 66. He knows them inside out and he can play them however he likes. If you want some kind of Greatest Hits show, go watch the Chili Peppers or the Stones or someone. Or better still, stay at home out of our way and put a CD on for that perfect ‘pipe and slippers’ evening you so obviously crave.. half the fun of seeing a great artist like Bob is the surprise of a reworked song.
A couple of jaw-dropping moments on Sunday had me grinning like an village idiot: ‘I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)’ played with a ‘Cindy Incidentally’ styled swagger, and the sheer surprise value of “Is this.. no.. he can’t possibly play it like this?” moments on favourites like ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.
Of course, ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’ is the blues and always will be.. and that’s the territory Bob marks out in concert and on CD these days. A generous helping of songs from his two most recent waxings slotted right in alongside the classics, but the bar band feel persisted throughout. And a great band it is, especially the rhythm section.. fantastic drumming from George Recile, I have to say. I could be picky and wish for one of Bob’s old cohorts to be filling the lead guitar spot, but that would be doing Denny Freeman a disservice. Bob spends most of his time behind the keys and wheezes some harp every now and again, which adds to the overall sound just fine.
So what else did they play? Well, the Bob-heads out there had the set list up almost before the show finished. Here it is. ‘Summer Days’ swung like a madman.. Tony Garnier on the bull fiddle really getting into it. An honest and affecting ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’, a dramatic ‘Thin Man’ was definitely a highlight .. great great music.
Very fortunate indeed last night to pay a visit to The Civic in Auckland for a screening of the new Ian Curtis bio-pic ‘Control‘.
Carefully crafted in black and white by Dutch photographer turned director Anton Corbijn (he filmed the Joy Division video for ‘Atmosphere’, and his photos of U2, Beefheart and others were an important part of my NME-obsessed youth) to “reflect the mood of the era” it’s an unsettling but strangely familiar experience for those of us who grew up in the North of England.
Based on Deborah Curtis’ book ‘Touching From A Distance‘ and co-produced by Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson, it’s constructed by those perhaps best placed to give us an insight into Curtis’ world.. but it’s their view, Curtis not being here to defend himself.
Not that he would or could.. Sam Riley plays it perfectly, the troubled young man simply not having either the life experience or the support he needed to work his way out of danger. Too much taken on too soon in his personal life, too many demands in his professional one, something had to give. Add to that fear of dying.. medical advice for his epilepsy being ‘here are some drugs, try them all until we find one that works’, compounded by the death of an epileptic of Curtis’ acquaintance.. that sword hung over his head too. You watch, and beg for someone to sit down and talk to him, work things out, and it doesn’t happen.
Someone told me he wasn’t a very likeable person. The compassion shown as he went about his day job, the childlike innocence and tenderness with which he approached his early relationship with Deborah would bely that. He just didn’t have the vocabulary, the nous, to look at his own life from the outside, he internalised it all.. until it was too late. Seeking solace in a doomed relationship with Annik Honore (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) and comforted by her presence, he nevertheless couldn’t explain his feelings even to her.
Samantha Morton‘s Deborah is an extraordinary portrayal: extraordinary in showing us the ordinary.. unsophisticated, simple, loving even when things are collapsing all around her, but again so young to have to cope with all the trials of both their lives.
It’s moving and bleak, Corbijn tampering with the focus and contrast to wash over the screen when the plot requires it.. it’s genuinely thrilling in the performance sequences, and it has those infrequent but golden moments of Manchester humour: the ebullient Toby Kebbell as manager Rob Gretton almost steals the film. But it’s Riley’s show.
Here’s an interview I did with esteemed music journo Charles Shaar Murray (originally run in Blueprint magazine, now called Blues In Britain) around the time of the publishing of ‘Boogie Man’, his book on John Lee Hooker.
The Captain: The new book….a long hard road you travelled but it’s finally here. Could you give our esteemed readers a rundown on how it all came about?
CSM: When John Lee had his massive comeback with The Healer, he and his manager, Mike Kappus, decided that it was time that a proper, authoritative full-scale biography of John was written since his life and career had never been properly examined before, and the only information about him in the public domain was in a few articles here and there, and on a bunch of often hilariously inaccurate liner-notes. In the immediate wake of the success of Crosstown Traffic and scoring a Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award, I became one of a group of short-listed writers who were considered for the job. Eventually it came down to me and the late Robert Palmer, who’d already written Deep Blues, one of the definitive books on Delta music. He was actually the first choice, as I understand it, but he had two books on the go at the time and was late with both of them. I was initially somewhat daunted, since I’d just spent several years in Jimi Hendrix’s life and had an idea for a novel which I wanted to write, but then I was kidnapped and tortured by Mike Kappus and Pete Townshend, who talked me into doing it. As Mike put it, ‘If you’re capable of writing a novel you’ll be able to do it anytime, but John Lee isn’t necessarily going to be around forever.’ That just about clinched it. I signed the line and agreed to deliver a 100,000-word manuscript in 18 months. Eight years later, Viking Penguin received this THING that weighed in at around 270,000 words.
The Captain: …both ‘Crosstown’ and the JLH book are shot through with cultural references and history of black music….
CSM: Yep. That’s pretty much what I do!
The Captain: Your best writing deals with singular talent…Hooker, Muddy, Alex Harvey, Patti Smith….?
CSM: As a critic, you write about music, and about what the music’s about. As a journalist, you’re drawn to people and personalities. The best stuff happens when you can pull the two together.
The Captain: I guess you don’t have to like em all the time to write good stuff though (thinking here about the ‘Shots’ pieces on Wings-era McCartney and ‘Black and Blue’ period Stones)…?
CSM: Ultimately, you gots to call it like you sees it. I just went in there, and what I wrote is pretty much the way it came down, except that in the case of the Stones piece I had to do all that ‘dream sequence’ stuff because there was so much in there about drug use: mine as well as theirs!
The Captain: Why Hooker? A big influence from the word go?
CSM: The first Hooker music I heard was ‘Dimples’, which was a Top 30 single in ’64, and a couple of older tracks on Pye International R&B series Chess compilations. I came to blues via the Stones and then this compilation called ‘The Blues Volume One’ – you know, ‘start here, kid’ – and there he was with ‘Walkin’ The Boogie.’ I’d never heard music that seemed so strange but felt so right. If you’ll pardon the awful pun, I was hooked.
The Captain: What was on the teenage CSM’s Dansette? And his radio?
CSM: The first record I ever bought was by Cliff Richard, but in my defence I have to state that I was only nine at the time! Then came Elvis, but even then I preferred the ’50s sides I heard on an album belonging to a friend’s older sister to the post-army stuff. Then when I was 12 along came The Beatles and a few months later the Stones, then The Yardbirds, The Animals and The Who, then Motown and Stax, plus I was trying to follow up on the blues, so I guess it was equal parts pop, rock and soul: the standard early ’60s mix.
The Captain: The NME years……a great time to be a music writer, so much happening…?
CSM: Yep, I have to say that it was a wonderful era. ‘Rock journalism’ came of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s as a response to the needs of both the musicians and the audience, but then it seemed as if the party was almost over: all the politics had drained away and idealism had degenerated into hippie cliche. So the new generation of writers championed those few artists who genuinely excited us and agitated for a return to music with some urgency and vitality about it whilst taking the p*** out of former heroes who’d come over all disappointing, like the Stones and ex-Beatles and Lou Reed. And then came punk! For the first time, believe it or not, I was dealing with musicians who were younger than I was!
The Captain: Blast Furnace and the Heatwaves, as much fun as it sounded? Best memories? (The Roundhouse?)
CSM: The Blast band was definitely tons of fun, despite a little too much bickering within the band. The front line of the band stayed the same, but we had rather too many changes of bass player and drummer for my liking. We toured with Wilko Johnson, Joe Jackson, Rockpile and The Pirates, and we opened shows for The Damned, The Clash and the Boomtown Rats. The basic idea of the band was to take the basic Dr Feelgood model of stripped-down, in-yer-face R&B, mix in a hefty dose of MC5 and rev it all up even further until it reached as cranked-up a level of hysteria as the best of the punk bands.
The Captain: You were legally threatened by a disco band about your use of the name Heatwaves!
CSM: Yeah, that was a farce and a half. I’d originally coined the name ‘Blast Furnace & The Heatwaves’ during endless drinking sessions with Alex Harvey, and we’d improvise comedy routines about fictional ’50s rockers and early ’60s beat groups. He was ‘Brett Falcon’, I was ‘Blast Furnace’ and we then expanded it to include their backing groups. Then in 1975 Alex had this Christmas gig at the Apollo in Victoria, and he came up with this idea that he wanted his opening act to be a bunch of music journos. He offered to pay for rehearsals, instrument rentals and beer, so a bunch of us from various papers formed the first Blast Furnace band. We did the one gig, had a laugh and then forgot about it. Fast-forward two years: it’s 1977, everybody in the world has a band, and I meet a couple of guys who’re Feelgoods fans and fancy doing a punky R&B group. They suggest reviving the old Blast name and then Heatwave start hiring m’learned friends and accusing us of ‘passing off’ as them. Well, if I’d wanted to pass a band off as Heatwave, I’d’ve assembled seven black guys in satin jumpsuits and had them play Earth, Wind & Fire knockoffs, but we were five punky looking guys in leather jackets playing amphetamined R&B, so I couldn’t quite see how anybody could get the two bands confused. Nevertheless, they went for it, papered us with writs, and blocked the release of ‘South Of The River’, which we’d had in the can for awhile: we were gigging all over the place and going down great, but we couldn’t put our record out, and that really gutted the band. By the time we’d agreed that it would simply come out as ‘Blast Furnace And?’, the group had pretty much broken up. If we’d got it out earlier we might have had a minor hit, because it sold 6000 copies in the first two or three weeks, which wasn’t massive but it was very respectable indeed.
The Captain: I always though ‘South Of The River’ would’ve made a good cop show theme like ‘Hazell’ or ‘The Sweeney’
CSM: You think you’re going to get an argument on that? I still think it was a very snappy little tune indeed.
The Captain: You got to hang out with The ‘Dublinaires’, and play rhythm guitar with Terence Trent D’Arby?
CSM: The Dublinaires, who sang backing vocals on ‘Can’t Stop The Boy’, a track from our 1977 EP Blue Wave, were Phil Lynott and Bob Geldof, who were mates of mine at the time. Incidentally, the lyrics to that tune were co-written with the poet Hugo Williams, who was also a mate of Wilko’s and collaborated with him on songs like ‘Dr Dupree’. We cut that EP over a weekend at Pathway Studios in Islington, where Stiff cut a lot of their stuff, including Nick Lowe’s ‘So It Goes’ and the first Costello album. Bob and Phil came down on the first day and we had to send them away because we were still doing backing tracks, but they came back the next day. When Phil arrived our bass player lost it completely. He was standing in the studio waiting for the tape to roll and he was saying, ‘Oh, it’s such an honour, I sing along with Thin Lizzy in my car all the time’, and we were just clutching our heads in the control room going, ‘Oh no, for f***’s sake shaddup’. I remember Zenon de Fleur from the Bishops, who was co-producing with fellow Bishop Johnny Guitar, hitting the talkback and saying to Philip, ‘Excuse me Phil, but have you got a cold?’ and Phil replying, ‘No, man, it’s just the way oi sound live’. My other main memory of the ‘Blue Wave’ session was somebody accidentally wiping my guitar solo from that track right at the end, with all the gear packed away and a reggae band banging on the door to get in. I had to borrow Johnny’s Strat, plug it in to the nearest amp, and do a one-take recreation of a solo I’d worked on for an hour the day before. Actually, it ended up better than the one we lost. A little more urgent! As for rhythm guitaring with Terence, I’ve no idea where that little story came from. It’s a wonderful urban myth, but unfortunately it never happened.
The Captain: Late 70s was a great time for Brit R&B (and blues too, my favourite Muddy is on those late 70s Blue Sky albums with Johnny Winter)?
CSM: Hmmm here’s where I p*** everybody off. That era, with the Feelgoods and, subsequently, solo Wilko at the head of it, was the last time anybody did anything genuinely radical or creative with British R&B. The best of the Britbluesers I’ve heard since have been very musical, and a lot of them are Big Fun on a night out, but there’s nothing there that’s really distinctive or which adds anything major to what has gone before. The problem with the R&B scene was that it couldn’t move with the times, and a music that cannot do that won’t be able to top up its audience with younger fans, let alone grow artistically. I wish that Britain could have produced the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray – who sparked the last major blues revival in the US – but ’twas not to be.
The Captain: Hendrix and Hooker: you picked two big guys to write about …. anyone you’d like to work on next? Musically oriented or otherwise? Or a novel?
CSM: The next thing is a novel, though not the one I was planning when the ‘Boogie Man’ project came up. That may well get written one day, though in radically different form, but right now I’m trying to finish the one I’m on at the minute. If it turns out good, it’ll be published towards the end of 2000 or the beginning of 2001. If it ain’t, no-one but my agent will ever see it. As for big music biographies, I’d only contemplate doing another one if the subject was fascinating and the money astronomical. Writing books like ‘Boogie Man’ is not a cost-effective activity: on an hourly rate I’d have made more money working at McDonalds.
The Captain: And finally, it says in ‘Shots’ that your favourite cult objects are the Strat, the Mac and the Zippo. Got any more toys lately?
CSM: Nope, the big three still rule. Only these days it’s a different Mac and a different Zippo and, unfortunately, a different Strat. I made the mistake of loaning my salmon-pink ’63 to the wrong person, and it never came back. A gunmetal ’89 Strat Plus is not an adequate substitute. My current pet guitar is a Fender JD Telecaster; I miss the Strat’s wiggle stick, but the JD is the first Fender I’ve ever bought brand new, and it felt perfect the moment I pulled it off the shop wall.
I’ve been spending a happy hour or two with Paul Trynka‘s new biography of Iggy Pop – a rattling good read it is too. It fit my bill – long enough to keep me going for a while (I read fast), unpretentious, the balance between pure info and story just right. The Guardian reckoned it didn’t “capitalise on the raw drama that is intrinsic to [Iggy’s story]..” – phoo, like Anthony Keidis’ book, you mean?
Mister, if that means I have to trawl through endless tales of prodigious quantities of drugs and sex to get to the real heart of the matter, then I’ll decline the offer, thanks. Very nicely done, Paul: I hope Iggy is pleased with the end result.
There is nothing more to be said on the fall and rise (and fall and rise, encore) of Iggy pre, during and post-Stooges than lies between the pages of this book.. especially interesting are the ‘Iggy and Dave’ passages, which saw me put Mr. Osterberg’s ‘The Idiot’ and ‘Lust For Life’ plus Mr. Bowie’s ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’ on heavy rotation on the ship’s stereo as I navigated the book.
Plenty of reviews out there, you don’t have to take my word for it.. plus some interesting stuff on the Trynka web site.