Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Of Mountains, Père Noël, And Vegetarian Encounters With Exotic Meat

I hope you have had a peaceful and pleasant Christmas commemorating whatever may be your winter festival of preference. Where I am at present it is called "Noël". I came to France last week and stopped off in Paris for a few hours as you may have noticed. Now P. and I, along with The Divine Miss M., are “down the valley” and not far from Grenoble where P. grew up. We have come to spend a couple of days with P’s papa.

Papa built his house forty years or so ago. It was the second house he built. The first one disappeared in divorce arangements when P. was a child. P. and his brothers all had a hand in helping papa build this extraordinary place. I never tire of the view even though, since the house was built, all the other plots have been sold and much infilling has taken place. In our bedroom there are two windows. The large one has double windows that open on to a small balcony with a view directly across the valley to the mountains of la chaine de Belledonne.

View from the bedroom

Behind the house tower the steep cliffs of the massif de la Chartreuse, part of which may be seen through the smaller window. Being France, both pairs of windows are shuttered. The windows in both design and view tell me I am in a different country.

View from the other window

I don’t know how many hours during the past fifteen years I have sat and stared at the Belledonne massif. Like the skies and the watery reflections of my beloved Fens, the mountains are constantly changing and dancing to the tunes that nature plays. As yesterday wore on, the mountains hid themselves behind a veil of mist. Today, in the rain, a different scene altogether is visible. I shall miss this place when there is no longer a reason to visit. Papa celebrates his 90th birthday next year. He has been making chocolates (he has got The Divine Miss M. dripping the remaindered liquid chocolate into paper petit fours cases as I type. Then the equipment will be cleaned and put back into the cellar until Pacques requires the making of Easter eggs. Papa has led a varied and interesting life. He seems not to have as many clients for his healing services these days. He knows about manipulation, acupuncture, herbs and other Chinese medical practices, although his favourite treatment seems to be to offer colour therapy. I wonder how many other university English language lecturers can put all these skills on their cvs? Papa is a bit of renaissance man.

Yesterday, P’s brother and his family came for lunch. During my childhood, before I was twelve and became a vegetarian, I ate pretty much whatever my mother chose for Christmas. Christmas was the only time of the year when the family ate chicken. How times have changed! Other meats being available, yesterday’s main meat course was ... kangaroo! I never expected to be sitting at table with people devouring kangaroo, but then they had already consumed the foie-gras, a delicacy whose attraction utterly escapes me. We are going back up to Haute-Savoie later today. We’ll drop The Divine Miss M. back home en route. Then P. and I have a day to prepare for the trip back to England. For the first time since I have been living on the boat I shall be returning with confidence that nothing will have leaked from any water system - I can’t say the same about any rain water which will drip into the bilges via gaps in the rear doors, the hatch and somewhere else I have yet to discover. Before leaving I drained the domestic cold water tank, the calorifier and the heating system. The weather had been cold before I left with hard frosts and a thin layer of ice on the river some mornings. I did not want a repeat of last January’s spillage (with ghastly details here). However, this does mean that the first thing I need to do when I get back to the mooring is to start filling up with water even before I light a fire to warm the boat up. I wonder how easy it will be to displace air that will inevitably have found its way into the system? I wish I could do a job without imagining all sorts of problems that will probably never come to pass.

I enjoy being with P. in France and his family is lovely, but I do look forward to going home and getting back to the boat. The workload that awaits me is not something that I anticipate with eagerness, however interesting some of it will undoubtedly be. No doubt more will be revealed in the fulness of the coming few weeks.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Of Paris 19/12

My trips to and from France are usually a fraught affair. Rushing to get to a station on time, checking in, passport control and all the rest of it. It takes very little to complicate the journey still further - usually it is the late arrival of one of the legs of the journey or just me. 

Waiting at St Pancras International for the 07.55 to Paris
Today I added another complication. I made arrangements to meet the good people at HyVibe Audio to try out the prototype of a guitar I have ordered from them when it comes into production in June. Gimmicks have always a been a weakness of mine, but these days I can mostly resist on account of cost, lack of available space and stopping to think about whether I really need whatever it is.  Increasingly I am of the opinion that I have too much stuff and don’t need anything more. 

I decided to make an exception for HyVibe. I think I first encountered them as one of those irritating suggestions on Facebook as a product that might interest me ... or was it YouTube ... or it could have been an Indiegogo mailshot. Whatever, I did just what Facebook/YouTube/Indiegogo wanted and clicked. I was taken to the Indiegogo website, which you may know means crowdfunding. The product wasn’t the first thing to catch my attention. What initially excited me was that the company was started up by people from IRCAM! IRCAM, as you may also know, is a place in Paris where, in my imagination at least, the most wonderful and magical music is possible. Sometime during a family trip to Paris in the 1990s I insisted we visit places like the Centre Pompidou to experience the architecture of an inside out building and I stood in reverence outside nearby IRCAM. I had wild flights of fancy about the hitherto unimaginable music that must be emerging from experiments in subterranean musical laboratories. I have no idea if that is really what happens, but it felt appropriate that it should. One day I may actually get to find out.

HyVibe have managed to get themselves noticed and, for a small company, they are certainly gathering a lot of attention. That is, they keep popping up in various feeds and threads to which I am subscribed. Good for them. If I ever get a recording together I should tap into their one-man advertising and marketing department. Their own website demonstrates the principles behind their guitar project. Basically the instrument uses the spruce belly of the guitar (the prototype uses a Martin as the starting point ... could do worse!) as an amplifying surface more akin to a speaker than a resonator. As a result sounds, including the acoustic guitar itself, may not only be played and amplified, but also an otherwise acoustic guitar can be played with added effects. I contacted the company a couple of months ago to ask if I could visit on one of my trips through Paris to try it out for myself and they readily agreed. We made a tentative arrangement for December and, having heard what other people have done with the prototype in the interim advertising videos and the guitar’s live launch party webcast a couple of weeks ago, I was even more keen to try it out for myself. 

As much as Monday’s plans went awry, Tuesday’s were super smooth. I woke up in London at 3am in the guest bedroom of my dear friend, M. I thought I might actually manage a little more sleep, but that didn’t happen. However a leisurely stroll to West Hampstead Station at 6am, a train to St Pancras, a spot of breakfast and check-in to my Eurostar booking due to leave at 8am. I maintain that after the multiple abuses one suffers in airports and whilst flying the train is so much more civilised, except when travelling a Sunday of course, but I think I have already expressed those concerns elsewhere in these essays. 

The journey to Paris Nord passed quickly, mainly owing to the friendly woman sitting next to me. We mostly chatted about the lack of promised on-board wi-fi, her job as a massage therapist and the friend she was going to meet in Paris before catching the 9pm train back to London. It was all very cordial. The rest of the journey to HyVibe Audio’s centre of operations close to Montparnasse was also very easy. 

An easy trip from Gare du Nord to Saint-Placide on the Métro

Once there I couldn’t find the actual building and ended up in a school at the same address asking for directions. A quick phone call to Matt Volsky, my contact at HyVibe, soon put me right and he came down the stairs of the adjacent building to meet me at a locked security gate. He and Adrien Mamou-Mani, another of the three founders of the company and a rather gifted and accomplished acoustic scientist, had only arrived back in Paris from their trip to New York to introduce the HyVibe guitar to Guitar World five hours earlier, so I suspect he was not at his best. I was introduced to the team. Apparently I was the first actual customer to try out the guitar. That seemed to make it a significant day for them too. My worries were two-fold. Firstly, would the guitar sound good and play well and was it a serious instrument above everything else? Secondly, the name HyVibe. It reminded me of another “instrument” I bought many decades ago that, at the time I thought so cool, but that turned out to be a musical dead end. That was an Optigan, a chipboard-built keyboard that used twelve-inch floppy discs that looked a bit like big versions of the free discs that came with some music publications in the sixties. These optical floppy discs were printed with stripes and patterns reminiscent of a monochrome Bridget Riley painting, but these patterns could be interpreted by the Optigan to play looped accompaniments to melodies played on the keyboard. The Optigan was unwieldy, required at least two strong people to lift it and Mattel, the manufacturers, let it die. Within a few years the MIDI protocol was established and Optigan would have bitten the dust anyway. However HyVibe is not the Optigan and neither do I see it disappearing in a cloud of indifference unlike my previous purchase. 

The guitar was actually on the workbench and had to be reassembled before I could take it into a smaller adjoining office and play it. I live in hope, but I still haven’t found a Martin I like. This wasn’t it, but I was relieved to see that they are taking seriously the necessity of using a guitar with integrity of its own before adding the electrics. The production models are unlikely to be Martins and neither will they be dreadnoughts. The plan is for a cutaway, which will be good because I don’t have one of those - listen to me, I’m beginning to sound like I have GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome - as sung about about by Sally Ironmonger on Sunday evening’s Jane Clayton Show on West Norfolk Radio. The official video of the song may be found here). 

Matt demonstrated the way to access and use several features which at present include the ability to use the self-amplifying guitar as a Bluetooth speaker for backing tracks, looping and recording, along with effects including reverb, chorus, phaser, delay, tremolo, acoustic boost and distortion. I tried a different song for each setting and was filmed playing and singing some of them. If any of them come out well enough I’ll add it here eventually. Everything worked pretty much as expected although the effects, which are controlled via a phone app are not yet fully developed, so the settings were mostly just on or off. The looping function only applies to its own channel at present, but should work with every effect by the time of production. Effects can be chained via the app and up to nine chains can be sent via Bluetooth to one of nine banks in the electrics on the guitar. It was mad having sustain and distorted feedback coming from an acoustic guitar. I am looking forward to June when I get a HyVibe of my own, although after today I am now the proud owner of a complimentary HyVibe plectrum. I don’t know yet how I shall use the HyVibe with my current repertoire, but it will be fun playing with it to work it out and I think the guitar is very likely to expand the methods I use when I compose songs.

At HyVibe - Dr. Francois Beaulier, Dr. Dmitri Bouche, Matthew Volsky, Marshlander, Dr. Adrien Mamou-Mani

Looking at the video of the Guitar World review in New York a couple of days ago it was striking that some of the comments from people watching were so negative. I thought they were very unfair at the time. There seemed to be two lines of attack, one was criticising the quality of the sound and the other that the technology rips off Tonewood. Firstly I don’t know how anyone could have judged the quality of the sound without being present. The quality of the sound relies, in a video broadcast, on many more factors than simply the quality of the instrument. If someone thought the sound was poor, it was more likely that they were listening through the tiny speakers of their laptop computer or smartphone. The real thing is impressive. I have never played a Tonewood-equipped guitar, but I think the technology involved is significantly different. HyVibe has been designed from the ground up. It uses a number of actuators attached to the underside of the belly of the guitar. Adrien's seven years of research have included finding the optimal placement of these actuators. The system relies also on the communication in software between mobile phone, tablet and HyVibe guitar for the sounds. This is quite unlike the Tonewood, which, is a hardware box attached to the the back of a guitar. That alone is bound to have a massive difference on the sound. I shall research further and let you know, for sure but I think the Tonewood does not attempt to be the same thing as the HyVibe, nor vice versa. At the moment I think that the HyVibe carries the potential to be more flexible in terms of sounds, because all the sounds are in the software. However, the Tonewood device probably scores in operational flexibility because the device can be attached to any guitar more easily, I suspect. The systems, though looking superficially, similar are in fact quite different. I suspect the HyVibe will probably end up being the more desirable device, while the Tonewood will probably win points on cost.

Having tried this prototype, I am looking forward to getting my hands on the finished article. I made one or two comments offering suggestions. It would be useful to have some control over changing patches via a foot-pedal rather than relying on a phone app or on releasing one hand to fiddle with the controls set into the shoulder of the guitar. I think the HyVibe team should be very proud of what they have achieved after many years of research and an excellent marketing campaign. They have reached 100% of their Indigogo target too. I didn’t think to say it at the time, but the worst thing about this innovative product is the name. It may appeal to young hipsters out there, but I can see that a few serious musos may have a bit of a problem owning up to buying something called a "HyVibe". Perhaps I'm just too fussy.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Of More Tardiness And ... Well, Just "Aaagh!" Really

Monday ... last day at home before I leave for France tomorrow. Since I am catching an 8am Eurostar to Paris Nord I made arrangements to stay tonight with a dear friend from my schooldays, M. He lives one stop away from St Pancras and really couldn't be more convenient for when I find myself forced to be in London. It is always wonderful to see him. I know that he will entertain me with his latest passion for the ukulele. He has probably bought a few new ones. If he finds something he likes he tends to go for the set. When we were teenagers I loved visiting his family. His mother always made me so welcome ... and she knew how to cook vegetarian food. Eating with M's family was my earliest experience of eating aduke beans. They are probably called something else these days.

As always on the final day before a French expedition, there was too much to do. I had Christmas and birthday cards to send to the very few people on my list - my choice as a fully paid up Scrooge. I had a list of jobs that needed doing. Chief amongst these was to take my precious instruments to my lockup many miles away and to winterise the boat. I am blowed if I wanted to return to a scene redolent of the great January indoor flood (details here, if required). I have been eking out the water supply so I didn't have to refill the cold water tank again before I left. Even so, emptying the domestic water supply from both the cold water tank under the foredeck and the calorifier in the engine bay took a good couple of hours. During that time I decided also to drain the heating system that extends by means of gravity and convection through pipes in the engine room from the calorifier and the header tank through to the multi-fuel stove near the "front door" of the living quarters where the back boiler is situated. Crawling through some inspection doors I could, by lying on my side and reaching in by torchlight, access a drain tap that I only discovered in January after the repairs to the burst back boiler had been made necessary. Pretty observant of me after living on the boat for five years. I hadn't actually tested the  tap, which I discovered on Monday required a crucially-sized spanner to open and close the valve. Naturally it took several goes to find the right spanner. I was able to empty about twenty litres of water from the system (there may have also been a dab of antifreeze in there too, but I wasn't going to take chances this time that there was actually enough). The wisdom on narrowboat discussion forums is that the water/antifreeze ratio should consist of a 50/50 mixture in the domestic heating system. I have a bit of a problem with that. Three sets of pipes or heating elements go through the calorifier - the tank that supplies all my domestic hot water. One of them (circulating from the engine's cooling system) already contains antifreeze. Adding antifreeze to the header tank means that two out of three systems contain a deadly poison. What if one of them leaks and I end up washing or washing up in antifreeze? Will I die?

I also had to remember to arrange for some payments to be made while I was away since they become due over that time. Those tasks finished I shut up the boat having emptied it of any precious instruments that I would rather still be playable should the boat sink while I am away, and headed off to my lockup. I didn't get as far as the farmyard where my van was parked when I caught sight of a musician friend who was visiting the farmer and the horse lady, friends of his since childhood. A., the musician, has been working on a new cd and I asked how it was coming along. "It's finished! It's out!" he exclaimed with justified pride. I had to have one. The ensuing conversation took a good thirty minutes. This was a very special occasion. We musicians don't put cds out every day, you know! Wishing each other the season's best we parted. Onward to the lockup.

I needed to buy a few bits that P. had asked for (it still seems odd that a French man should ask for specific items from British supermarkets, but who am I to question ...?), so I stopped at the nearest one on the way. Just as I was about to step over the threshold my mobile phone rang. It was the chief agitator in our group of petitioners against the Middle Level Bill (more here). I watched the sky turn red and the sun sink below the horizon as we discussed important matters relating to the campaign and our speedily depleting stock of time to prepare our upcoming presentations to MPs in Parliament in a few weeks. The phone call lasted an hour and I still had my shopping to buy and instruments to return. I was never going to get to M. in London by 3pm as planned. Once on the train the journey was more than two hours. It was already 5pm and I was still in The Fens.

Finally, equipment safely stowed under lock and key, I set off again to park the van at another friend's house, about forty minutes drive away. This friend lived in a town with a railway line and even a station (we still curse the name of Beeching in The Fens) -  about half an hour's walk from his house - and from where I would catch a (much later than expected) train to London.

I arrived at M.'s flat about seven hours later than planned. He was ill (again - he seems to save colds for when I visit), but he had made a delicious vegetable soup from scratch. No aduke beans that I could detect. Tomorrow is another day. I can't afford for delays. French trains are like aeroplanes and I would have to get the seats I had pre-booked or lose my place and my money.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Of Anger, Guilt And Powerlessness

I woke up this morning. A man I met yesterday was determined not to. I feel angry, guilty, frustrated and really, really sad. For family reasons I had spent a few hours near a town in what looks to be a very prosperous part of the south of England. Before getting stuck into the 150-mile drive back to the boat yesterday I diverted into the town centre to buy some guitar strings. I’ve only visited that town once before, but as town centres go, it is quite attractive. It is on the River Kennet and there are narrowboats. The afternoon light was fading and I didn’t have time to take a riverside walk. I was trying to get back in time for the first performance of a community singing group started by the Drama Lady.

I bought my strings (and some other bits I hadn’t intended) in Hogan Music, a very friendly independent and interestingly stocked music shop and wandered further into town. That’s where I saw him. Sitting on the ground in the near zero temperature in an alley just off the High Street. I tried to remember where he was and decided I would talk to him on my way back from buying a birthday card. I don’t go into towns very often - not when most of the shops are open anyway - so I have to remember things like birthday cards when I get a chance. A few minutes later when I returned he had relocated a few yards into the High Street. I didn’t blame him. The alley was probably a wind tunnel. He was sitting in the doorway of a closed, darkened shop. His knees were drawn up and draped with a thin woollen blanket. Although his coat looked warm, it probably wasn’t.  He looked utterly defeated. Even his hat for voluntary contributions looked wretched. Someone had dropped in a piece of costume jewellery, a brooch of some sort, but I could see no money aside from a few coppers.

I asked if it was okay to sit with him and he looked at me from a very long distance inside himself. I sat among some empty sandwich packets and coffee cups. I have assumed until recently (because several street people have told me so when I’ve done it) that it is unusal and welcome for a stranger to offer a few minutes of time when they drop some money into the hat. In my middle-class, do-gooder way I breeze in and out of their lives for a few minutes of my precious time and feel suitably virtuous. When I visit a place I make sure I have ten pounds in my pocket, which I know I may end up sharing among street people, people busking, people begging and sometimes even people selling the Big Issue. If I didn’t set myself a budget I might be tempted to give everything away. I’ve done it before and given away my train or bus fare. Sometimes I buy myself something from a sandwich shop and get something extra for someone I have seen. I never know whether food and a warm drink is welcome or whether the bodies of these people need some other form of nourishment. I know mine would be screaming for fruit or fresh vegetables (and probably, I confess, some very, very dark chocolate) if I tried to live on a diet of burgers and pre-packed sandwiches.

Sitting with people for a while they invariably have a story to tell. Often just one event has happened to turn their lives completely upside down. There are times in my own life when that could have been me. In Highbury, a few weeks ago I tried to spend a bit of time with people who clearly didn’t want my company. I hadn't really encountered that response before. One man outside the tube station had a palsy so bad he was risking spilling the change right out of the plastic disposable cup in which he was collecting contributions. I couldn’t tell if his attempts at speech were the result of his condition or whether he spoke little English. Whatever, with such violent tics forcing his body to run flat out he must have been exhausted. A few minutes later I dropped some money into the bowl of a very young man who had just enough English to point down the street and tell me to go. “You give money. You go!” He exclaimed in a voice that sounded fearful. Just what had happened to detach him from social contact with people in such a desperate fashion? His response made me question my actions. I thought I was trying to treat each person I spoke to with the same kind of respect I would want for myself. I always ask if it's okay to chat. I know they must be wondering what it is I want from them. I think most of us need something and that what they need is likely very different from what I judge to be the case. What have I been expecting or wanting? I didn't think I wanted anything from them. I felt that there was little enough I could do to show a little bit of human kindness - I have enough for myself with enough to share a little - but maybe I need something more than that. What? Absolution? If I'm lucky I may get a song out of it. Then I have to balance the right to exploit someone else's misfortune against an opportunity I perhaps have to raise awareness. Has Ralph McTell saved any lives by writing and singing "The Streets of London"? My approach to street people since then, however, was to be very unsure of how best to approach them or, indeed, whether attempting conversation was a good idea at all. On balance I think it may be. Too many street people have said how they appreciated someone spending a few minutes with them, having someone look at them rather than the other way and having a chance to tell their story.

There is always a story. Here’s one from a man I also met yesterday. Thirty-three year old P had lost his job, his girlfriend and his flat. He had a place in a shelter which accommodated him and his companion of many years, his dog Tizer. Tizer had a temperature. P took him to a vet who prescribed antibiotics. A few days later Tizer regurgitated blood, lots of blood, seven towels worth of blood. Tizer turned out to have cancer and P couldn’t afford the prescribed operation after he’d already paid out for treatment. He had to say goodbye to Tizer. Then the hostel presented him with a bill for six months of arrears. He had been keeping up with the £17.50 a week that had been asked of him, but now they were telling him that his benefit payments didn’t cover the remainder of a bill he did not realise he was incurring. He had to leave and I was speaking to him as he prepared for another cold night in the open while still mourning the loss of his mother and the more recent loss of his dog. He asked me my name and tried to guess my occupation. He thought I was an artist ... or a hippy! He was pleased and not surprised to find out I was a musician. “What’s your instrument?” he asked. I told him to guess. He said I couldn’t be a drummer or a trumpet player. He thought I was a violinist or a flautist and seemed disappointed when I told him I was a one-man band and did play percussion. We shook hands as I got up to go and he laughed when I told him that his name was the same as my boyfriend’s.

Back in the High Street the defeated man showed signs of being seriously strung out. He spoke slowly, quietly and with effort. There were many pauses in his tale while his eyes went into periods of hibernation before his voice petered out. Then he would re-emerge for few more seconds to move the story on. He had spent the previous night indoors at the invitation of a “friend”. Come morning his sleeping bag, blanket, some spare clothes and his friend were all gone. I was horrified and outraged. He told me to take back the money I had dropped into his hat. There was no point and he no longer wanted to live in a world where such things could happen. I told him to keep the money in case he wanted a cup of tea and I bade him farewell. I knew I couldn’t leave it there. I found a charity shop which, fortunately, was still open and went inside to ask if they had any sleeping bags or blankets. I related the story. The volunteer looked at a few unsuitable options and said she would see if there was anything more useful in the back of the shop. She came back with a bagged up king-sized duck down duvet. I realised this was incredibly bulky for a homeless person, but the evening was getting colder, so I bought it and took it back to the defeated man. I asked him if he minded if I left it with him, because it was wrong that someone should take his stuff. He barely acknowledged me as I placed it on the ground beside him on top of more food containers I hadn’t noticed before.

“You won’t see me again,” he said. I said he was probably right and that I wouldn’t be back to that town for a long time. “No, I just don’t want to live in this horrible world where friends steal each others’ things. I’m going to end it tonight. I shall stay here and get as much money as I can to buy as much heroin as I can get and then I’ll o.d. I have no reason to live and I will die tonight.” He was very matter-of-fact. He had reasoned this out. However shocked I was at what he was saying I could see his reasoning. What would I want were I in his shoes? I had to admit it could easily be something very similar. “I said, okay that has to be your choice, but I hope you can remember that the world where friends nick your stuff is the same one where someone you’ve never met before and will never see again gives you something to try and keep you warm. I hope something good happens for you.” Immediately I hated myself for being so supercilious, but it was the best I could come up with on the spur of that moment.

I left, shaking and weeping. A big voice inside me was telling me to alert someone to his plans, but who should I tell and what would be the result of me saying something? The best that could happen would be that some official would turn up and his freedom would be taken away. I needed to talk this through and the only place I could think of was to go back to the charity shop where the volunteers had been so kind and helpful. They gave me a chair to sit on and a few minutes of their time as I composed myself. When everything else has been stolen from us is it right to take away that final microscopic thread of dignity to make a man conform to our own view of how a life should play out? I’m guessing and hoping that the defeated man had nothing like the amount of cash he needed to be able to close his body down in his chosen manner. I’m also hoping that he wrapped himself in duck down and began to feel differently as his body became a little less frozen.

I turned the wrong way and couldn’t find where I’d parked my van. Asking directions I had to walk the length of the High Street again, passing his spot once more. I saw the defeated man and he was on the move. He was up on his feet and stooping to collect his remaining belongings together. I really wanted to see if he took the duvet with him when he headed off, but that would have ruined the point of the gift. Sharing this experience with you probably also defeats the object. This is not a tale about me, but I am trying to work out what I experienced. It is an expression of the shame and anger I feel that some of us are forced into such a place that suicide appears to be the only remaining option for self-determination. So, in the face of homelessness - and climate change, species decline, greed, famine, war, sickness and poverty - we’ll keep intoning the mantra, “Brexit ... Brexit ... Brexit” and congratulate ourselves on getting our country back; we seem to be doing a jolly good job there.

Yes, I woke up this morning. I was in my comfortable bed and although the cabin on the boat was cold at only 12ºC, I wasn't affected by the wind and, while raining, the rain was falling outside and not on me. Neither had I been kicked awake by some drunken louts out for a bit of "fun". I hope the defeated man woke up today. I hope he experiences a little bit of kindness. I didn't make it back in time for Drama Lady's concert. I hope I didn't make the defeated man's life worse.

Of Unintended Stalking And Magic

I am not a stalker; perhaps that should read that I am not a stalker on purpose, although I do accept that sometimes I get a bit more enthusiastic about my musical likes than some find comfortable or even comprehensible.

Gone are the days when the only way to find out about your musicians of choice was to scour the classifieds in the back of Melody Maker or write to their record company or a radio station. I've done all those and I can testify to the excitement experienced on receiving an acknowledgement. These days, being a fan is so easy. Social networking and mobile communications make everyone available all day every day. We musicians are made to feel we are not doing the job if we don't play the game. Pretence and imitation add to the blurring of personal territory.

When I started listening to music that was not the music of my parents there were few gurus. Like many, I took John Peel as one of mine. Later, Radio Geronimo was required listening. For that brief window during the 60s I was an avid listener to the so-called "pirate" Radio London.

the MVGalaxy from an article by Gerry Bishop, Hans Knot and John S. Platt  (soundscapes.info)

My credibility may have been enhanced had I been able to claim Caroline as my radio station of choice, but that wasn't to be. Radio reception of Caroline was poor and sporadic and I preferred the playlist on Big L. It was John Peel's first job when he returned to the UK from the USA. Listening to him was how I discovered musicians and bands that I have continued to follow throughout my life. One of those bands was Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band. Although he didn't feature them on his show as often as he did, say, Tyrannosaurus Rex, John Peel played Beefheart often. He had strange stories to tell, many of which seemed to revolve around telephones. I have a vague recollection that he was at least once berated by Captain Beefheart (later to be known more widely as the fine artist Don van Vliet) for not being at home when he phoned. Captain B. also appeared to know exactly when the phone was about to ring. Incomprehensible as it may seem now, our telephones were once large blocks of electrickery that had to be plumbed into our houses. Mobile phones were only ever seen on Star Trek or spy films. We had no idea that mobile technology would become so pervasive so quickly in the late twentieth century or a revolution would take place in the way in which we conduct ourselves in the early twenty-first century as a result of "social media".

In the late sixties and early seventies I heard tracks from "Safe As Milk", "Strictly Personal" and "Trout Mask Replica" on the radio and bought the records to hear more of the tracks in their album contexts. No one else seemed to be making music like this, particularly by the time it got to "Trout Mask Replica" and "Lick My Decals Off Baby". Unfortunately, in my family, no one else liked the music ... their loss.

Fast forward to me at the age of seventeen. My family had recently moved to a village near Hertford  and I had been going out with a Stevenage girl for about a year, long enough to get into a routine. Our Sundays were shaped by the church attendance (probably mentioned in other essays here) of our families ... church, Sunday dinner with her family, more church, tea with my family, drive her home to Stevenage. "Clear Spot" had been released and I loved every track. Then came the news that Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band were playing at The Mecca in Stevenage on Sunday, 22nd April 1973.

Formerly known as The Locarno Ballroom, The Mecca was indeed a mecca long before it metamorphosed. Along with Bowes Lyon House - the town centre youth club - the Locarno saw most of the famous bands of the sixties on stage, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who (several times), The Small Faces, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Paul Simon and many others. By 1972 the big live gigs had reduced in number although dances were still held there between bingo sessions. That there was a gig there at all was one thing, but that it was Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band was something quite amazing. I was challenged to make a choice between the normal Sunday routine and something utterly extraordinary. I think it was one of those relationship tests that seemed to appear from time to time. Of course I went on down to the big dig ... er, gig. I didn't know why it had to be a contest. There was no question in my mind that we could go together. There was no question in hers that we would go at all. We nearly ended there, but we went on to get married a couple of years later, although she always left the room if ever I put on a Captain Beefheart record. This is my long-winded way of trying to say that it feels as though The Magic Band and I have a long and sometimes complicated relationship.

You probably know that Don stopped performing music, moved into the desert and took up painting as his main occupation. Sadly he passed away in 2010 as a result of MS. In January 2004, though, John Drumbo French brought a reconstituted Magic Band to The Royal Festival Hall. Made up of members from different stages of the Band's forty-strong list of musicians and played some of that music I thought I would never hear played live again. That evening they were supported by The Fall - another of John Peel's favourite bands, albeit one that didn't touch me at all. Since 2004, though, I have seen The Magic Band play many times on their return tours to Europe. This one that finished on Sunday, 26th November 2017 was, it seems, the final tour.

The Magic Band 2017  (l-r Eric Klerks, John French, Jonathan Sindelman, Max Kutner, Andy Niven)

I saw them twice that weekend - on Friday night at the Garage in Highbury and on Saturday night in Norwich. Norwich was more relaxed and the band played a storm. By many accounts the following and final night in Essex was even better. After the show on Saturday, all members of the band eventually found their way into the bar at Norwich Arts Centre. Anyone who knows that space will be familiar with its intimacy. I managed to hold a conversation with every member of the band and was once more impressed by how nice it is when musicians make themselves available, no matter how exhausted they must be. There is a huge difference between musicians who meet and mingle and those who don't. Some need the safety of a structured space, Peggy Seeger and Donovan, are examples of people who choose to keep a desk between them and the public as they chatted and signed merchandise. The Magic Band, along with others like Arthur Brown, a man who needs to prove nothing, are prepared to mingle. This attitude is in such contrast to a band I've followed for decades, when after a show this year in Nottingham, about twenty people were waiting behind Rock City where the vehicles were being loaded. Everyone was keeping a safe and respectful distance. I just thought it would be nice to say a quick hello, thanks and wish them well for the remainder of the tour. I didn't expect anyone to know my name or remember extended conversations we have enjoyed in past decades. I waited for a long time. Eventually members of the band came by. They weren't the stars. They were this year's new young musicians. There was no danger of anyone being hurt, but not one of them stopped or even acknowledged the greetings and good wishes of those assembled. They seemed to gather into a single file and, eyes fixed ahead, marched right through us while road crew cleared an unnecessary path. It looked so arrogant. It felt so dismissive. Forty-five years of support for this band and >£250 spent on that evening alone - half of that on merchandise - should not have made any difference (any and all of that was, after all, my choice), but somehow it did. I suspect some of them might have liked to chat, but they were following orders. The stars of the band are knocking on a bit and no doubt need their beauty sleep, but what a difference in attitudes!

Simple things can make all the difference. As far as The Magic Band was concerned it was being able to talk to Andy Niven and Max Kutner about their Android Trio project (well worth a listen by the way). With Jonathan Sindelman I talked synthesisers. Eric Klerks (the third Android Trio member) made my night even better by giving me a huge smile that shone like the sun and threw his arms round me in a lovely embrace.

I may not be a stalker by intent but temptation, by definition, is hard to resist. Perhaps i can express this modest thank you to all those musicians who have brought me so much pleasure over so many years.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Of Non-Days & Songs That Are Out Of Control

Have you ever had one of those days that were full of good intentions and by the end of it you realise you had achieved very little? This could turn out to be one of those days if I don't do something productive soon. Hence this non-post.

I suppose I could credit among today's achievements the couple of hours I spent writing to someone I have never met who is really struggling to cope with her tinnitus; the glockenspiel practice I spent time on, so I'd be ready for percussion lessons I'm teaching tomorrow for a friend who is in America for three weeks; the processing I've been doing about a song I've been working on that will probably have to undergo a massive dose of therapy itself if I am to avoid trouble down the line ...

Songs can be uncontrollable children and this one certainly has been. I've mentioned in other posts that I find writing lyrics difficult, but I have read and heard many times the smug adage that many of the best-known songs have arrived fully-formed and that one should stop tinkering with them and get them finished, learned and shared and that, anyway, the best songs are always the ones you don't mess around with too much. That don't impress me much! I don't know if I shall ever experience such a pleasure or even that I actually agree with it. I do a lot of editing - sometimes over days, weeks, months or, in the case of a couple of songs, years - to make my words say exactly what I mean them to say. Perhaps it is a case of writing, writing, writing and occasionally the subconscious yields a gift as some sort of reward. I don't think I've written in sufficient quantity recently to merit that, although I have spent at least a couple hours most days practising and rehearsing. I don't know how people find the resources both to write and to practise. They require completely different frames of mind. Perhaps this non-post is an address to that very problem.

The most difficult bit for me is finding a subject sufficiently engaging that a song demands to be written - I put it down to my unprofessionalism and lack of imagination. I think this is one of the reasons I love Richard Thompson's songs so much. He seems so prolific and has covered a lot of subjects in his songs. He never seems short of places ito start. If he doesn't have an angry relationship situation to set down in a tear-stained song he'll imagine one, or he'll write about a motorbike, a lost love, a race horse, a Victorian beggar girl, an abused child, a night on the town, a fantasy wedding ... hell, he even managed to write a song about Sting! 

The lyrics of my new song appeared in a first draft quite quickly a couple of days ago at about three o'clock in the morning. By six a.m. I'd written three verses and a substantial chorus with a bridge. I'd even had ideas for the melodies for the bridge and the chorus that I noted down in my manuscript book. I'm trusting that whatever melody I compose for the verses will arrive at some point when I sit down with the intention of doing some work on it. However, the lyrics ... they are fierce and angry and, while that's not normally a problem, this time it is. I don't know whether that anger is justified or where it should be directed - which is just another way of avoiding admitting that I really need to look in the mirror. I have directed my anger at someone who didn't deserve it while I was being a prima donna. I let a personality glitch spill into the professional attitude of which I am so proud.

Have you ever met someone who was probably full of good intentions and they simply rubbed your ego up the wrong way? This was a case of that. I perceived a request being made, I offered a solution, the solution was rejected, I took it personally and the ointment I applied to my thin and bruised ego was to stop talking and retreat into my metaphorical ivory tower. Without giving too much away I talked it over briefly with the wise bass player last evening and I'm glad we found time for that brief exchange as he was preparing for a gig with his own band. Now I have to discipline my delinquent song. I've been thinking of ways to do that. Pity really, I did come up with some first-rate bitching!  

Notebooks and pencil on the bed and at the ready.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Of The Pleasure Of Small Gestures

Did I tell you about the early concerts I attended? They were life-changing events in that they are still with me fifty years later. I'm sixty-two and I feel myself slipping into life as one of those older people who loves to share stories of earlier years. If I find them so fascinatingly memorable, why doesn't everyone? In 1967, the so-called summer of love, I was one of the many swept up in, amongst other things, Monkeemania. There was something so appropriately sunny about the music, even when the subject matter was slightly daft ("Your Auntie Griselda"?), somewhat improbable ("Saturday's Child"?) or even downright stupid ("Look Out [Here Comes Tomorrow]"!). I enjoyed the weekly antics on the television show and bought the first three albums - Meet The Monkees, More Of The Monkees and Headquarters - as soon as they came out. I went to their show at the Empire Pool in Wembley, dressed in my Sunday suit, and experienced the grip of mass hysteria as I stood up on my seat and screamed like all the girls were doing. My mother, could only sit next to me in horror and amazement.  By the time we got to  "Piscces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Limited" and "The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees" my attention had moved elsewhere. My interest was raised again with "Head", but the relationship was never quite the same. That show was opened by Lulu. She was sunny, bubbly and totally inaudible, but I decided I loved her too. I bought several of her singles.

I had begun to devour the weekly music press at the age of twelve, starting with Disc & Music Echo, while John Peel had become my guru on the radio. I had listened to him on the independent radio ship, Radio London, and had reluctantly followed him to the BBC and their new venture, Radio 1. While never quite being able to forgive him for taking Auntie's shilling he did still play the most interesting music. He played Tyrannosaurus Rex every week and they became the next object of my adulation. Again I bought the first three albums the moment they were released. I had pestered the poor man behind the counter at the local Rumbelow's for weeks leading to the release of "My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair, But Now They're Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows" and I bought Marc Bolan's book of poems, "The Warlock Of Love", with similar haste. I was devastated when Steve Peregine Took left. He was my favourite - it wasn't just the long hair, the cloak and the percussion, but he added those strange and beautiful vocalisations to the songs. I was horrified when, in 1970, Jeff Dexter played "Ride A White Swan" over and over and over again at the Third Isle Of Wight Festival. I wasn't aware of the controversy caused by Bob Dylan's expansion into electric expression at the time, but I think I felt betrayed in the same way as John Cordwell who shouted, "Judas!" during the second half of the concert at The Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 17th May 1966. From that moment my relationship with Tyrannosaurus Rex was severed. I had been prepared to give the new man, Mickey Finn, a try but every further move into commercialism (including the unconscionable shortening of a great band name) distanced me more from the band.

At the height of my affection for Tyrannosaurus Rex, though, I begged my parents to let me go and see them play live. Obviously it was not feasible for a thirteen year-old to be allowed to attend one of the all-night gigs at Middle Earth in London that were the tofu of many legends in those days, but when the Babylonian Mouthpiece Show was organised at the Royal Festival Hall 3rd June 1968, my mum and dad relented and bought tickets for the whole family to attend.

This isn't my ticket, but wasn't far from where I sat.
The evening opened with Stefan Grossman. I seem to remember him singing the line, "Delia, I wanna steal ya", which made an impression on a young man who had yet to write his first song and a whole year before I plucked my first guitar string. After his set was David Bowie, who didn't sing a note that night. Instead, he danced/mimed his way through a story about a village being invaded by an army, I think. I could look this up, because someone is bound to know. I do remember this was the time of discontent over US involvement in Vietnam and at one point Bowie was heckled by a man with an American accent. Tyrannosaurus Rex were the final act of the evening and of course they were wonderful, but I was actually most taken by seeing Roy Harper play for the first time of what was to become many times. His second album, "Come Out Fighting, Ghengis Smith" had just been released and he was also singing songs from "Folkjokeopus", which wouldn't be released for a while to come.I remember my father laughing at a line in "She's The One" and my mother giving him a disapproving look. Roy Harper had mentioned "pants" - shocking. My two younger brothers slept through it all - pity, they'd have thought it very naughty and a lot of fun. I bought "Ghengis" within days of attending that concert and I played it almost literally to death. I made the mistake of using a brand of so-called record cleaner on it. This imbued the music with a hiss which over months became a storm of noise on the record that gradually obliterated the music altogether. I've kept the album, but it has been unlistenable for decades. From time to time I looked for a replacement in whatever format I could find, but nothing seemed available.

Recently I stumbled across Roy Harper's website. He seems to have most of the licenses to his recordings and is able to offer them as downloads. I jumped at the chance of buying a download copy of "Come Out Fighting, Ghengis Smith" and getting my ears wrapped around the title track that has been such an important influence on the way I make music now, or the mysterious "Highgate Cemetery", the doped up, "You Don't Need Money" and the extraordinary "Circle". Although my own parents never put me under the same pressure as the parents of the schoolboy in the song I identified very strongly with the protagonist - victim status has been fashionable for a very long time. As I was downloading the album and one or two others that caught my eye I also saw a hardback version of a book of Roy Harper's lyrics, photographs and recollections, "The Passions Of Great Fortune". I bought that too. I sent an e-mail message to the web-site sharing something of what I have written here. I didn't know if Roy Harper saw the e-mails that were directed to his site. A few days later a heavy package arrived from Ireland. It was my book. Indeed it is a beautiful volume and it was great to have the lyrics of most of the words in one place. As I opened it I came to the title page and there in thick black pen was a personal message from Roy Harper addressed to me and thanking me for my recollections. I cannot say just how much I was touched by this simple and thoughtful gesture. It's a lesson many could learn and a reminder to myself to try and be nice to people.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Norwich to see (and this time hear) Lulu in concert. She was, of course, superb. She has one of the finest rock voices this land has ever produced and, maybe I'm just an old softy, but I did find it very moving that she has only recently found her own voice as a songwriter along with the confidence to sing her own songs. I bought a signed copy of her cd of those songs. I do find great satisfaction in completing previously unfinished business, even if it takes me fifty years.