Resits: “E” is for Bill Evans and why I loved, then hated, then grew to accept his music.

It’s a long story.

First of all, can anyone not like Bill Evans? He was a genius.

Well, here’s the quick answer: spend every waking minute of your life listening to his music, watching his every move, notating bowel movements, sleep patterns. Do what I did, transcribe thirty recordings for money, to be later published in four volumes. Welcome him, like Jesus, into your life, into your heart and into your central nervous system, let him be the food that enters your body and the excrement that comes out.

It wasn’t out of choice, they asked me to do it. There were a ton of notes, too many to count. Luckily I wriggled out of doing the drums, but bass and piano still seemed an insurmountable and unpredictable task. How much do you want? they asked. How long will it take? I had no idea in either case. I came up with a random figure for payment (it wasn’t enough) and away I went. For four months I did nothing else.

I used some great software called “Transcribe” to isolate short sections, take down the notes, then move on. The early stuff was fun to decipher, not too dense, beautiful all over again. “Alice In Wonderland”, from “Sunday At The Village Vanguard”, had this low, ghostly moan every time I looped a particular section of it. I take the loop off, play the track as normal. It’s gone. I loop it again: there it is, too slow and deep to be human. Can music be haunted? Glasses clattered and clinked in the background.

Then I started to think: I’m going to be an authority on this guy. I will be the expert, nothing, not one pub conversation, not one casual dismissal of his swing feel and especially, not one publication, will happen without going through me. His name will not so much as get a mention without my opinion being thoughtfully noted. My name in lights, with letters after it. Liam Noble, MaBiL, something like that, something that would fit on a blue plaque.

More on that later.

So, I plough on. I get to the early seventies and the notes increase, the glacial beauty of the heroin period becomes the frantic lyricism of the coke era. It’s still him, even he couldn’t escape the brilliance and flexibility of his system. But, to my ears, he starts to coast a bit here and there.

And it’s not just the ears that sense it. Writing every note on paper, erasing it, correcting it, you are aware on a molecular level of every decision he makes. As I wrote, the other end of the pencil bobbed up and down with monotonous regularity, getting the notes down almost as quickly as Bill could push them out….(Bill…we were on first name terms by then). The pencil seemed to know. It was becoming too much like hard work. And for what? Why transcribe this music? That was becoming, for me, the burning question, the question that burned and then burned the charred remains of itself, petering out in a powdery puff of indifference. The deadline and the pay check loomed.

But then I reached the later Village Vanguard recordings, a supercharged swan song and a revelation, he’s almost Cecil Taylor-like in the way he tries to catch everything that occurs to him. Maybe he knew he was running out of time. It’s pretty breathtaking. It is, thank God, a rewarding end to this exhaustively peculiar journey. It was over and all I could do was wait for the complimentary copies to arrive.

And eventually they did. I must admit I was excited at the thought of seeing my name on something. I opened the Jiffy bag like a rabid toddler. There was a nice big photo of my mate Bill, that’s good, it’s his music after all. Nice big logo of the publisher (I won’t mention them here, feel free to Google the “world’s largest print music publisher”). That’s good, they paid for it.

But there’s something missing. My name. There’s no mention of me anywhere. This music, to all intents and purposes, transcribed itself. How could I be an expert if there was no evidence, or proof even, of that expertise?

The weird thing was, in two of the four volumes, my name (and that of Chris Baron, the person who transcribed all the drums) was included. In a small Times New Roman font, dwarfed by empty paper space around it, as if somebody forgot to erase it. An incredible level of incompetence from a company that size. I really should have sued them, for loss of, er, something. Loss of….PRESTIGE……so….no fame for me. No lecture tours. I might have, at one point, known as much about Bill Evans as anyone. And that knowledge (which, we are told, is its own reward) must have at least helped me as a player, right?

In actual fact, it pretty much destroyed me as a player for months afterwards. Every time I laid my hands on the piano, it was his music that came out, his patterns, his colours. But my brain knew it wasn’t me, so it rejected the transplant and tried to fight it, this alien consciousness that had got into me. I played games with myself, play like Monk, play like Monk. But games are no good for improvisation, you’re not really supposed to be thinking of anything. It was like reading instructions on how to fly whilst falling, wingless, off a cliff. The flow was gone.

Cold turkey was the only way. I stopped playing standards and I stopped listening. I got, eventually, the poison out. The information faded away. My revenge on the whole process was the complete expulsion of all the so-called knowledge I had accumulated, an unprecedented data dump of forgetting. Eventually, after a couple of years, I could stand to hear it again. I rediscovered the Bill Evans I knew before I knew too much. Now when I listen to the way he slides in and out of keys and tempos on “What Kind Of Fool Am I?” on “The Solo Sessions Vol 1″, or marvel at the explosions of “Nardis” on “The Paris Concert”, I don’t think about how he does it, or what it is. It’s just air vibrating, circulating, refreshing and replacing itself. It’s a moving picture made of noises.

Let’s have a book of those!

Resits: “D” is for Thomas Dolby: “Hyperactive”.

I can’t tell you how many tries I’ve had at this song. Just trying to describe it, the feeling of it, without losing the essence and explaining it. The whole thing resists explanation, partly because I was young when I heard it and the impact was part mysterious, part kinetic, it made my body jolt in a way that was as close to dancing as I would ever get. I didn’t understand what went into it, and didn’t really imagine myself almost forty years later typing, deleting, typing, deleting, trying to write something that captured what I felt about it.

Anyway, what I love about it is the way the music starts all broken up, drums without a groove, bass that seems one beat away from its proper place, an angsty vocal that feels tight in the throat. Those “orchestral hits” that basically sound like eighty classical musicians disappearing into a black hole backwards. The whole thing is like a ball of energy ready to “blow”, as Dolby says in the lyrics.

It’s like those clockwork toys, I know, it’s a long time ago. You wind them up and then there’s that point just before you let them go, the rubber wheels pulling at the floor. I remember that feeling, in my body, the energy and the anger that, in an instant, could be converted to a kind of ecstatic trance. Beethoven, Fela Kuti, Miles, all the best rhythm sections had it and have it. When it happens, it can feel like it’s the answer to everything.

I also didn’t know what hyperactive meant really, certainly not the proper medical definition. To me it was just the feeling that this guy, a young Thomas Dolby, had this energy in him that made him feel out of place and caused him to terrorise his teachers and fellow pupils. When all those bobby socked teenagers felt that Sinatra was singing just for them, well, that’s what I felt like with “Hyperactive”.

The verse is all stop and start, confusion and frustration, but the bridge releases all that energy into an incredible groove that picks you up and hurls you forward, I can almost feel the wind of the air left behind rushing past my head. It’s kind of air punchingly great the way it suddenly takes off, and “they’re messing with my heart” is a nice twist on the “messing with my mind” that you’d expect: it’s not just his head, it’s deeper, and he understands that in a way “they” (teachers, shrinks, parents) don’t.

Once this transition happens, it’s like the tension is gone and he’s on a big rant which, in a way I hadn’t noticed all those years ago, gets a bit violent and sinister as it goes. But it’s too late, we are on his side. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager and kicked a bedroom door (that’s everybody, right? Er…..Right?) is on his side.

Yes, it’s all a bit cartoony. No, I don’t have anything against therapists. Or parents. Or teachers. But this song just seemed to drop on me at a time when I thought that being a jazz musician might just include playing on grooves like this, might include inventing them even. It’s pure rhythm (almost no chords, a surprisingly common trait of a surprisingly large amount of surprisingly good music). It seemed to find the perfect subject for the twitchy, metallic sound of the new music of the time, and it gave people like the young Thomas Dolby, kicking and screaming their way into an uncertain adolescence, a voice.

Resits: “C” is for Joseph Canteloube: “Baïlèro” from “Songs Of The Auvergne”

In 1926, some forty years before “She Loves You” by The Beatles, Joseph Canteloube begins arranging a series of folk songs from the mountains in central France.

“Baïlèro” opens with a solitary line that sort of bleeds into its accompaniment, like a single drop of water landing on a fine ink drawing, relaxing its edges. The feeling is like sitting in one of those bulbous leather sofas with titanic cushions, the ones that are too big for most living rooms. It’s almost impossible to leave and, as the phrase ends, there’s a “yeah yeah yeah YEAHHHHHHH” moment, the accompanying chord enveloping it like a cloud. (Listen to that Beatles song again).

These dream-like washes are orchestrated and ordered with the precision of a diamond cutter. Whilst the audience wallow in the sheer sensuality of the sound, the composer watches the movement of parts like a hawk. Chords shift from one to the other like trees swaying in the breeze, and above them carefully crafted lines make it all feel so simple. Canteloube believed in the status of folk music as “high art”, he took elegantly formed folk melodies and made them grand, lush, surrounding them in exquisite counterpoint, just enough to savour the move from one chord to another. On this recording, Victoria de Los Angeles has a kind of joyous lightness in her voice, carefree above these harmonic clouds, hiding from us the years of work it took to arrive here (that is high art). The melodies cross and swoop like seabirds, bass notes are somehow revealed to us like huge rocks in choppy seas. This music sounds too natural, it moves too easily, to have been engineered by human hands.

My view is, however, somewhat biased. It was years ago, and I was listening to music with someone. We were exchanging drunkenly our favourite pieces of music. My offering was the aria from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” played by Glenn Gould, and hers was “Baïlèro”. It’s stayed with me ever since, the feeling and the music entwined forever in a moment. How had I not heard this stuff before? As I listen now, the music digs around in my subconscious, reminding me of places and feelings within it I sometimes can’t reach, but that are nevertheless there, held between the notes, among the swooping seabirds and the wine. I’m drunk again.

It didn’t work out, that particular relationship, but that isn’t the point. We musicians are frequently studying things, looking for inherent merits, underlying craft, evidence that something is timelessly good, stands on its own two feet. But music sometimes just drops on you, envelops you, at the time you need it, for reasons beyond your knowing and in ways you can’t describe.

It is, though, fun to try.

Resits: “B” is for John Butcher: “Sprinkler” from “Invisible Ear”

Sometimes it’s the way music hits you, full in the face, or maybe gently tugging at you like a nagging toddler. As I turned on the car radio, this piece had already started, so I had no idea who was doing it and with what. It insinuated itself into the atmosphere, emerging from the low drone of tyres on tarmac, camouflaged as noise. Otherworldly is a word that comes up far too often in describing music, but this, for once, had precisely that impact…an unknown entity creating sounds governed only by each other. It seemed to vibrate not the air, but some other undiscovered gas, melodies only gradually revealing themselves, starting as a noise on the periphery of motorway hum, becoming gradually more miraculous.

Free improvisation often contains its own little symphonies, the human instinct for tension and release skirting the edges of the structure it wants to escape. This is not one of those occasions. The whole thing has, rather, the feeling of a cyber insect emerging from its metallic burrow, feeling out first the air, then the ground, tentacles and toes twitching with electrostatic curiosity. Like a clockwork toy, the charm is not in where this music is going, but how, wandering around in itself, walking sometimes over the same space to see if it feels the same, sounds the same – repeated sounds transform in unpredictable ways, a simple gesture revealing its hidden complexities. There’s a feeling of the music leading, the saxophonist following without judgement.

It’s the definition of magic, slight of hand, a combination of small things working together to produce one illusion. The noise of the keypads against the holes, resonating through a long tube and producing feedback through an amplification system. It’s a saxophone being re-purposed, re-examined…like a magnifying glass cast over the unused edges of a canvas. Pops and scrapes merge and separate in strange two part inventions, each seemingly of its own world and point of origin.

I don’t know how it’s done, and I don’t particularly want to know how it’s done. I’m hanging on, perhaps in vain, to that moment when the music, before I knew it was music, appeared of its own accord and washed away the memories of whatever gig I was driving home from. Perhaps it was a wedding, the happiest day of someone’s life. They chose the tunes and we dutifully played them.

“Sprinkler” was, on the other hand, uninvited, but most welcome.

Thank God for the radio. I don’t always want to choose.

Resits: “A” is for Adderley.

Resits are just that, sitting down not for the first time, but again.  Henry Miller says, in “The Books In My Life”, “…one should read less and less, not more and more.” But what about another option…reading less and less more and more times?

Music is so often only listened to once, so I am going to listen again to some records I have lived with.  The alphabet will do for me as a structure,  let’s see if the letters come out in order.  So, as Julie Andrews might say, let’s start at the very beginning.

“A”…is for Cannonball Adderley Quintet’s “Sack O’ Woe” from “Live At The Lighthouse.”

220px-the_cannonball_adderley_quintet_at_the_lighthouse

“…I believe you could call this one funky” announces Cannonball Adderley, a man who on the sleeve of this record is photographed wearing a suit under a parasol on Hermosa Beach.  Never mind the weather, it’s important to look smart.  I used to listen to this on my parents’ Pye Achiphon stereo record player.  It had speakers in the side, four knobs in the middle, and it sounded like these people were in there playing, that if you followed the needle back far enough down the wires you would find them.

Yes, you could definitely call it funky.  His implication, though, is that you call it whatever you want.  The band can’t wait to get shot of this bottom heavy beat, great though it is, and they really let loose once they do.  It’s as if they are saying, yes this beat is fun to play, it’s fun, but fun is not enough.  Over and over, they start with that reassuring chug, but soon they drop it and the whole thing opens up.  I didn’t get it for a while, it sounded like chaos to me.  After all, I was still on Fats Waller (still am).  That was an important experience, to know that people don’t get it immediately. They have to decide they want to, and they need to be patient.

Cannonball’s opening few notes of his solo are something you could try your whole life to get near.  He is on top of everything.  He can somehow make you excited about knowing he will never make a mistake.  It’s easy for him but he doesn’t want you to know it was ever hard, slashing his way through these chords like a samurai in an origami workshop.

Nat, his brother, is different, seemingly blowing the cornet as if trying to pop it like a crisp bag.  His melodies are all tangent, visiting the less bluesy backwaters that Cannonball leaves uncharted.  It’s unstable, distorted, courageous.

And then the piano solo.  Victor Feldman is English, and he swings like crazy.  English.  This alone was inspiring to me at the time, squeezing my spots in a Bromley bathroom, but he also brings out something else in the band, a kind of simmering energy where the piano breathes and finds its own space.  Tunes everywhere.

Sam Jones’ bass solo makes you forget he’s all the way down there, it’s just pure melody and more funk, and then the piano just creeps in, just adds something like a pinch of salt in a soup that brings it out without swamping it.  Louis Hayes pushes relentlessly, at every volume and at every level, a kind of artisan drum machine whose repetition conceals waves of variation and the push and pull of arms and legs.  Every phrase, every beat, every line made in the moment, a lifetime’s work.  As the band fades out below the level of the audience, it’s been over 30 years since I first felt what I am feeling now, what was that and how can I do it?

I doubt the cover photo would pass an artwork designer’s discerning eye today.  It’s a shame, because it tells you everything you need to know.  That this band look smart even on a beach.  Regular guys.  They walk onstage, they play, they walk off. The needle is burning.

A new series

This is a quick disclaimer: I’m putting up a blog that was written six years ago, and it will look like I wrote it just now. I’m going to take something out, something like a comma, and put it back in. It will then look like I just wrote it, being dated according to my last edit. If you were, for instance, planning on writing my biography, just be aware of this bibliographical inconsistency.

I’m doing this because it was the first in a planned series of twenty six (one for each letter of the alphabet) which never got off the ground at the time, and I can’t deal with starting with “B”. So I have to bring back “A”, kicking and screaming into the future.

I like things to be in order, to be collected in a place where they feel together. That’s probably why I like playing music and writing things. And I like things to not match…the worn and the pristine together on one shelf. In the digital realm everything looks the same. I might have expected, at one time, the corners of this blog to have gone a bit yellow, the “well thumbed” pages decaying in the beauty of use.

But….nothing gets old now. We spend our lives looking at (and listening to) non-perishable things. They are files. Of course, they could all disappear in an instant, if someone jams a spanner into the worldwide internet control box…..but they don’t wear out. (Humans do, of course, but we are working on that.) So I can jump right back in, the look of everything stays squeaky clean, like a Dickens folio edition.

So anyway, somewhere, a machine will be whirring under the strain of keeping my 25 forthcoming blogs on the web. I’ll try and keep the kilobytes to a minimum. I remember when this was all fields.

Philip Watson’s “Beautiful Dreamer”, a biography of Bill Frisell

In 1988 I had a Raoul Dufy poster of a painting on the wall above my bed, a racetrack in a green haze. The men, women and horses were all drawn in heavy, sometimes multiple, outlines, whilst the colours within seemed to blend into the background, producing a strange kind of perspective and intensity to their figures. I bought “Power Tools: Strange Meeting” that same year, and since the record and the poster became entwined in my daily routine, one seemed to melt into the other. It was my first Bill Frisell record: the thickness of the lines, how they became transformed, delayed, reversed through effects that seemed to be tamed, made musical somehow through sharp reflexes – this seemed to fly in the face of jazz orthodoxy and yet for me, it was pure improvisation. Frisell made pure melody out of the music of chance. And I loved the fact that this was a jazz ROCK record, finding joy in pure sound and, in Melvin Gibbs and Ronald Shannon Jackson, a rhythm section that sat right on the boundary between groove and chaos and gleefully stomped back and forth between the two. It was all about how flat lines drawn with movement can jump off the page, out of the speakers.

Philip Watson’s superbly evocative biography, “Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed The Sound Of American Music” wears its heart on its sleeve in the full title, focusing on the work and the process by which it comes into being, as well as perhaps the state induced in the listener. Sounds and dreams feature heavily in titles, in Frisell’s own recollections, but also in the way the book unfolds. The story of his life is told in a mixture of straightforward narrative and interviews, and fans will be keen to hear about this winding road to stardom, but this is frequently interspersed with the numbered “Counterpoint” chapters, where various musicians listen to Frisell’s music: like a blindfold test without the blindfold. Followed by corresponding chapters in Frisell’s life relating to each recording, they give the impression of flashbacks, looking back on each period from the present day as the biography progresses chronologically. These range from die hard devotees like Sam Amidon (“…we had a kind of Platonic ideal about what the perfect album would be. Good Dog, Happy Man was both that vision and ideal.”) to former employer Paul Simon (“…trying to hear the thing that’s just beyond what you hear”) to composer Gavin Bryars, who uses the opportunity to have an amusingly bitchy dig at composer John Adams. Bluegrass star Rhiannon Giddens confesses half way through the interview that she doesn’t know Frisell’s music at all. This could have been cut – I’m glad it wasn’t, it adds to the rough edges, the warts and all feeling.

Throughout the book, sequences of events may be intercut with present day reminiscences from Frisell himself, words will jump in and out as individual thoughts, interrupting the prose, cutting into the timeline like sudden snatches of sound captured and repositioned – like, in many ways, Frisell’s own use of transformed loops. This is not so much a deep dive as a prolonged soak: an inscription at the book’s opening from Rahsaan Roland Kirk talks about the need to look back to move forward, and there’s a feeling that Watson has taken this idea seriously, poetically even, allowing a kind of ebb and flow of events, thoughts and insights. This also takes its cue from Frisell’s famously hesitant vocal delivery, which is unfailingly effective whether humorous or otherwise.

One of the things I liked most was how the writing itself is never stifled by the duty to render the subject in “matter of fact” language – there’s no pedantry, date checking, number crunching. Like the music, there’s a haze around the clarity. There are many examples: my favourite describes Bill’s marriage to Carol D’Inverno, where interviews with them both are interspersed with Bill’s impression, rendered phonetically to great comic effect, of the Sherrif’s Southern accent. It captures his humour as he recounts Carol trying to repeat the words in a language she didn’t understand at the time, spoken in an accent that clearly exacerbated the problem. It’s a refreshing change of pace, but one that feels totally appropriate in this kind of storytelling with its shifts in tone and time. This is a writer who understands improvisers.

Another stand out chapter, “Song Of Myself”, takes its title from the iconic Walt Whitman poem and describes, not without a little self deprecation, various journalists’ attempts to describe the “Frisell sound”. A list of adjectives like “oozing”, “cloudy”, “enveloping”….”drizzly”….(drizzly?????) serve to remind us that writing about music is not easy, and rarely relates to what is actually happening. As the author says, almost tangibly exhausted by the sheer indulgence of language used to describe Frisell’s guitar:

The dilemma of how to best address and encapsulate Frisell’s sound has remained the same…where to stand on the spectrum between billowing clouds and a laughing child?”

Perhaps just talking about how impossible it is remains the only strategy. Frisell is a rarity among improvisers, finding wide appeal outside the jazz and new music community, and a lot of that is to do with the elusive “sound”, which it’s easy to forget is always a combination of tone and the notes within it. Perhaps this is why no one ever sounds like him, but many are influenced.

For me, Frisell’s sound is an accumulation of inherited passions that, through force of will and artistry, have somehow fused together. He seems to have an ability to add whatever grabs his attention into the mix. Perhaps the problem is that writers want the words to describe something that is always changing. After abandoning processing and pedals almost completely for a while, his renewed set up now has a more intimate feel, closer perhaps to an acoustic blend, but as the 2014 “Silent Movie” solo session showed, the bite and the chaos are still bubbling under the surface. “Music IS”, a more recent solo recording from 2018, seems perhaps more controlled and tune-orientated, but the use of effects contributes to its beauty in a different way. Tunes have always been paramount in Frisell’s music, however far out it goes. Revisiting the bluegrass infused “Bill Frisell And The Willies”, it was hard to resist the sheer hit-making catchiness of “Everybody Loves Everybody”, with its ever so slightly off centre opening that creates just enough tension between the simplest of chords, the earthiest of melodies. In many ways, one can follow the changes in his sound directly through the recordings he’s made with the longstanding Paul Motian trio with Joe Lovano, the last couple of albums on ECM allowing much more of the pure telecaster sound through. There are many sides to Bill Frisell, but in some ways, as his playing deepens and matures, they seem like multiple views of the same thing. The crunches have certainly become subtler but we should all know better than to think they have disappeared completely.

Every fan has their favourite periods. I have a special fondness for the eighties and early nineties, where John Zorn’s experiments seemed to throw everything up in the air – artists like Frisell, Tim Berne, Bobby Previte, Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz seemed to find their own subsequent ways through the aftermath, each providing fascinating alternatives to the orthodox jazz set up, which proclaimed the supremacy of the nineteen fifties as a gold standard. On Frisell’s “Before We Were Born”, the opening title track goes from an almost neo-classical poise and elegance, only to suddenly lurch into a groove which made me think of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. This is all in one track.

Much is made of the relief of finally having “nothing to prove” as an artist, but this record, with its almost impossible scope, has the joy of having something to prove written all over it. It’s a thrilling ride: the albums that followed, “Is That You?” and “Where In The World?”, are two of my favourite records of all time. They don’t get much praise here in comparison to later recordings, but reading about your heroes always involves confronting differing opinions. It’s like a sport. I had to resist the temptation to look up all my Desert Island Frisell albums in the index and see if I was right about how much I liked them. For me, all the later stuff reverberates with the distant sound of that revolution, however “safe” it might seem.

There’s a particular fondness here for “Gone, Just Like A Train”, “Good Dog, Happy Man” and “Blues Dream”, perhaps representing an ideal confluence of restraint and adventure, and the subtlety of the writing and playing is stunning. Frisell puts out records at such a rate, however, that they only ever seem like snapshots of a huge work in progress. It’s interesting to read how even Nonesuch Records, who surely were the dream contract, couldn’t get stuff out quickly enough for him and he eventually moved on. He’s gracious and grateful throughout for how fortunate he feels, but there are hard luck stories throughout, including a particularly gruelling solo session for ECM under the claustrophobic gaze of Manfred Eicher as well as difficulties with health and family life through overwork (yes success has its price). It’s all a timely reminder that things are not as simple, or as peachy, as they might seem. There’s a nice sense of Frisell as the guy just playing guitar while stuff happens around him. The account of an incident onstage involving Naked City, various performance artists, Arto Lindsay, a giant dildo, a reading of “120 Days Of Sodom” and a microphone used for purposes other than amplification is too good to recount verbatim here. It’s not currently part of any conservatoire curriculum, and that is their loss.

At the end of the book, Watson quotes some lines from Frisell’s website marking a gig returning to his childhood neighbourhood in Denver:

“So many seeds planted. Still growing. Trying to get it together. Just getting started.”

For Bill Frisell, the search and the struggle to keep the music fresh, continues as it always must. It’s also a lifelong search to find journalists who understand your process as much as the finished product, who are willing to let you tell the story of your work without telling you how you did it. The sound, and the dreams that spring from it, seems as good a way of describing that process as any, and this seems to me to be at the heart of the book. With “Bill Frisell: Beautiful Dreamer”, perhaps the search to find a writer who can mirror that process in words, has come to a satisfying end.

Hurry Up And Enjoy Yourself: the inexplicable drive to make everyone the same.

The unit comprising parents and their kids, known also (rather aptly I think) as the “nuclear family”, has many advantages. Autonomy is not to be sneezed at, and a bit of distance from extended family can be constructive. But there are also a few downsides. A committee of two adults seems rather small to be making big decisions about people too young to contest them, so there’s often a feeling of colossal responsibility. Then there is the childcare issue. It’s all on you. Unless, of course, you have the finance to pay someone else to do it. Enter The Nursery.

The Nursery is filled with hard working, well meaning and compassionate staff who do an amazing job of making children feel happy and comfortable, all whilst being paid well under the odds for their work. The Nursery is also the first step on the school system ladder, the first time your child will be assessed as anything other than cute, hilarious or grumpy. His or her needs will be filed, behaviours analysed, and any problems will be identified and acted upon, by people with qualifications. You can tell them apart from the workers on “the floor”: they have clipboards and badges.

They want to know how your child functions in a room full of screaming kids of a similar age. Is your child “taking part”, “joining in”, able to “communicate their needs”? I have been in these rooms. I’ve had fifty three years to get over my fear of them. All that happened is that a childhood fear became an adult aversion. As a two year old, however, I only had one need I wanted to communicate: to get the f*** out of there.

I have older two kids, now teenagers: at pre-school, primary school and secondary school the conversation went like this, for both of them….

Teacher : “Oh they always have their head in a book”.

Me: “OK that’s great…I’m glad they enjoy that. I enjoy that too.”

Teacher: “…they are doing so well at school, good grades, helpful, a pleasure to teach.”

Me: “Ah great, I’m glad they are not causing you any trouble.”

Teacher: “The thing is, they don’t put their hand up in class, and that’s a bit of a worry.”

Me: “Is it?”

Teacher: “Yes, if they know the answer to a question they should say so. It builds confidence.”

Me: Shrugs (thinks: “for whom, the student or the teacher?”)

(Actually, the exchange never went like this. I would usually nod and say “ah OK” and pretend to understand, perhaps giving a couple of suitably pitying looks – you know the type, that slick professional faux-empathic face that seems to crumple in the middle from the sheer force of caring…Then when we got out of the meeting I’d say to my daughter or son: “Ah OK, same old shit, I’m glad you’re enjoying school, I did too. And I never put my hand up either. And I don’t now. It’s all fine, do what you’re doing, it seems to be working.”)

This was fifteen years ago. My youngest son is two and a half. and we are back here again. He is….. Two and a half. If, by a certain date, he has not achieved targets of easy going confidence and loudmouthery, then, we are told, the “investigation as to why he is socially anxious needs to go a little deeper.”

Social anxiety, we are told, is not the same as introversion. Introverts don’t like being around large groups of people. Socially anxious people fear it. I am not a scientist, but I’m not sure at two years old you can separate these two categories. (Teacher: “Are you afraid of all these people?” Small child: Turns away and points to an empty corner of the room). I don’t like the “correctional” overtones of this approach, almost like taking your young son out to do manual work to “man him up”. But I can’t say I blame the messengers in this case. They have a job to do. But they are also answerable to a system of what I shall call “Extrovertiarchy” because I like to make up words. Even the boxes they have to tick seem somehow to be part of an extrovert world, a simple yes or no, an answer at face value without nuance. Where, for example, is the testing environment where a child is left alone with one box of lego for half an hour? How did they do? Did they simply throw it around the room until somebody came to play with them, or did they build a multi-storey car park with motorised gates and an integrated miniature fare paying system?

Here’s a handy guide (one of many) to what constitutes introversion. Jonathan Rauch’s observation on extroverts is particularly pointed:

“Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion,” Rauch suggests. “They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood.”

Taking “umbrage” at the need to be alone is the privilege of those who seek to asses our children. The list of traits found in introversion are, it seems, cardinal sins when you are in the schooling system, and also will mark you out as potentially “strange” as an adult. Of course, the usual list of “famous” people who were introverts is supposed to make us all feel better, the idea that you can “channel” your weirdness into genius. It’s a good reason not to try and stop our children developing into the perfectly happy introverts they are destined to become. But it’s not enough to only allow visionaries the privilege of their own company, the space to de-compress. There’s a kind of moral compass at work that says “normal” is “extrovert”. A normal person can sit happily whilst two or more people try and ask you different questions simultaneously, or while a speech therapist with a voice like a mouse with a jet of compressed air up its arse tries to coax out your underlying self confidence….”Look, it’s a dinosaur! A din-o-saur….squeak squeak”.

I love my son’s nursery, but you can’t help feeling they are victims too, trying to achieve the impossible by converting everyone to a way of seeing the world that is hard wired into us way before they get there.

Extroversion rules. It is a marker of well adjustment and good mental health. Big crowds of shouting strangers are a fact of life, and one that occurs with alarming regularity. Social media is full of bug eyed, self promoting lunatics and influencers who manage to similarly shouty with only one person as a prop. These paragons of self assuredness are everywhere. Introverts don’t like them, but we are a minority, and that’s how we like it. You need a system to kick against. Please don’t fix anything or we’d have nothing to shy away from. As a fashionable minority, we are where we want to be, tucked away under what passes for reality.

Why We Must Tell Everyone That Streaming Music Is Not Enough

Music is among the most ephemeral of all arts. When it is written down, it’s in code, a code only understood by the kind of people who made the stuff in the first place, and that might explain why most music in most cultures is not written down with any real degree of precision. The thing only exists in the air.

It is air. Moving air.

We need air to breathe and we need air to hear. I recently discovered that the Italian verb sentire means both to hear and to feel. You could say hearing is feeling with ears, but new revelations indicate that sound acts on our whole bodies. Hearing and feeling become one in the same.

Music inhabits the air, but that air becomes thick, thick like gravy from the seventies, like the smell of a thousand perfume counters. The air from the speakers of your phone is not big enough. You would not date someone an inch high: don’t listen to music through phone speakers. Where is the love?

Headphones can make you feel surrounded by music, but you are then cut off from people around you. It’s a solitary experience, and it’s one I like a lot, but….it’s not a gig.

Recently I made some notes about a gig I was at. I had some fleeting observations, you know, mostly about why one note or gesture over another….but the shaking air all but smashed them and I wrote nothing down. Music is not an absolute, at least it wasn’t that night. Music is the people that it gathers together. To listen to a record is simply to imagine such a crowd around you. Tonight they are here. Sometimes music seems to play time backwards, the people that come somehow summoning the sounds. It radiates experience outwards into memories but with a seasoning of the new. Ghosts live and breathe. If you were there you would know, tonight you would know.

I stream music. A lot. I did a whole series of solo gigs in lockdown where my source of tunes was mostly from a streaming service and a search engine. Streaming is like looking in the footnotes of the Mona Lisa, like sky diving by sitting on a chair and having a friend scroll drawings of the sky past your face. It’s an indicator of a future experience. When you make a lot of money, you say: “I don’t know what I want to do, but when I do I’ve got the finances to pay for it.” The problem is, the finances pile up and the dreams fade away.

We have become used to an all-or-nothing approach to everything. It’s either all live music, wax cylinders and crackling vinyl or it’s a brave new world where music of the future will be released in a gas through the streetlights and suburbs of cities, towns and villages, perfect, odourless, soundless. And it will probably be Beethoven, James Brown and Neil Young because new music will be too expensive to record. Perhaps….we already have enough of it. I mean, how many “playlists to aid work concentration” does a person need?

But we only “have enough” if we regard the final “product” as the thing that matters. But it’s not. It’s the making of it, and the witnessing of that making by the people who crave the soul-comforting, mind-sharpening, puzzling sound of air moving through the world. Music is still communal, and all those people sitting in front of you on the bus with their earbuds in, they are longing for it too, but they are, in the meantime, making do with what has been made convenient. Music’s online availability, utopian perhaps in its early days, has removed the glamour of its scarcity. Rareness breeds value, but music is now lying half eaten in the street, a bag of chips discarded because the prospect of a sausage is a new taste sensation.

It’s not enough.

Love Letters

When I was about ten, I pulled a poster down from my wall, wrote “I Love Sally” on the back, and put it back. Nobody had known my guilty secret, and now, following this confession, I knew it. It was real. Signed, sealed and, until now, never delivered.

Pen on paper, feeling the contour of the lines, the resistance of the paper against the felt tip, you have to push the pen, gently ease the words into existence. It was real, real but protected by a photograph of the Chelsea squad circa 1970 that originally belonged to my dad. A firewall for the old century.

Perhaps I wanted, one day, to be discovered, then someone else could spread the rumour, take over the administration of this devoutly wished-for union. And maybe Sally had her own scrawled secrets beneath the bedroom blu tack. I liked to think of our posters talking to each other, meeting in some kind of virtual union of unfulfilled actions. Safe, secure.

Either way, I am glad there were no home computers, let alone internet, available to me then. Printed words, like these here, carry a kind of authority for me learnt from childhood. Print meant books, newspapers, magazines. The effort of putting something into print meant that somebody somewhere meant what they said. You couldn’t have five pints in the pub, become melancholy and morose and publish an article for publication five minutes later. Even newspapers, working on a very fast turnover, required witnesses (editors) to filter the content and, in the meantime, you could sober up clutching your head thinking “Why did I write that?”

Now there is no hangover, but there is the rage and counter-rage of the internet. Momentary thoughts slip through our fingers into the public space, unedited but presented in the flawless fonts that pass for a measure of quality. You’d think twice about that passing comment if you’d had to chisel it into a stone tablet. Today’s Moses would likely have had another couple of hundred commandments saved as drafts in a separate folder.

Landlords often stipulate that no blu tack on the walls is allowed. I used to think it was to avoid damage to the inevitable magnolia paintwork. Now I know: it’s to force our secrets out into the real world. You cannot hide anywhere except, for now at least, in your mind.

I won’t be tagging Sally in this post. Her Facebook address is safely hidden under a firewall on the long since corrupted hard drive of my memory.