On My Recent Revelation About L.A Rap in the 1990s

Everyone has to start somewhere.  Mostly, it’s at some kind of beginning, and that makes you, by virtue of your position, a beginner.  When I was a kid, I found a book in Bromley Central Library of show tunes.  I’d just started liking jazz, and was eager to try out new tunes, maybe find some that hadn’t been played that much.  I was particularly taken with two of the songs in this book.  One was “Stella By Starlight’ and the other was “On Green Dolphin St”, two of the most played standards in the whole jazz repertoire.  I didn’t know what I didn’t know then and, if my discovery was thirty years too late, I knew at least I was on the right track if Miles Davis liked those tunes too.

The 2007 Ava DuVernay film, “This Is The Life”, comes at the uninitiated like a torrent of white water.  There’s no welcome message, no complimentary mint on the pillow, you’re straight in, it’s like you pass someone on the street and they just start spilling it all out, their life story and the life story of the club that made them.  This was the story of “The Good Life”, a health food cafe that doubled as a music venue, where rappers were thrown out for cussing, or for using excessive “diggety” ornamentation in their rhymes (filler-type patterns that had the slight stink of bullshit about them).  There had to be substance to the words, these were the rules. Substance and no cussing. And no leaning on the paintings.

Parallels with hip hop and jazz here speak for themselves (God knows jazz has its share of meaningless ornamentation).  But when the musicians talk about how they rap, what happens when they’re doing it, it’s all flow and it’s all concentration, it’s character and it’s technique, articulation, being suave or being charming, “chopping”, “spitting”, breaking up the line. This isn’t “new” to me, but these grainy old video footage of these grainy exchanges shows how the rappers bounce off the energy of the audience and off each other, and that brings everything closer to us.  These are a cast of characters (including the director herself, who was in the group “Figures Of Speech”) united by their music and mutual respect, but also by their drive to be unique, a community of individuals.  These people are loveable nerds. There’s one guy who, apparently, would always rap about fish (“he would be putting in stuff about, you know, red snapper”). There was no bluffing in this art, and anyone who did would be told to leave, often, eventually, by the whole audience, as if they were polluting the atmosphere somehow.

Hard but fair.  The fact it happened to a guy who had a record deal at the time (“pass the mic” the audience would chant) will resonate with jazz musicians, or with anyone who works at their craft, no special dispensation for big time success stories in that club. I won’t attempt a “review” here, it’s best experienced fresh, but this film is full to the brim with music and words, a real treasure trove.

The thing I love most about the cinema is coming out afterwards, the feeling of moving from that enclosed space to the open world, the dislocation that confirms that something has changed.  I haven’t spoken for five hours, but in my brain there’s a head-spinning avalanche all the way home, I’m trying to remember everything that I saw and heard, it came in such a rush, all the names of the MCs and crews, where was the club, was it LA, (I’ll check when I get home), I’ll buy all the records, and I’ll look for the lyrics so I can start again and piece it all together slowly at my own remedial pace.  I’m lost.  I feel like a beginner, like an idiot somehow and, as a musician, that’s the feeling I’m always looking for.  It’s the best feeling in the world.

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West Side Story

I recently came back to playing this music with Paul Clarvis, twenty years after we first tried it.  The same feelings returned, the physical buzz of diving into something so full of musical opportunity.  Physicists tell us that time doesn’t exist, that their quantum equations don’t add up unless you take the bit out, and I can verify that. Coming back to this music, it feels as if time stands still whilst our bodies simply age around it. I am 29 again, in so far as I ever was.

Somehow the plot of West Side Story, of true love scuppered by the squabbling of rival gangs, is in the music itself.  He somehow builds it into the sound, shooting through the popular musical with darkness and uncertainty, a kind of instability.  A chord in music has what’s called a root note, it identifies the “key” and is the main thing that defines its relationship to other chords.  If you put this note at the bottom, you get a “strong and stable” sound.  An Ed Sheeran song like “Perfect”, for instance, has all its root notes on the bottom.  It’s unambiguous, it gets to the point.  This is great.  Plenty of good songs like that, but….this is the fossil fuel of music, fresh ways of doing it are running out.  Chords seem to be the last thing that anyone thinks of tinkering with (jazz, on the other hand, often has the opposite problem).  In songs like “One Hand, One Heart” and “Tonight”, Bernstein takes this “fist in the air” sincerity and undermines it.

“One Hand” is a hymn to devotional love. Hymns are celebrated for their logical beauty, parts moving impeccably yet beautifully between well chosen chords that are easily recognised by a congregation. Bernstein sticks to this idea, the melody moves one step at a time for most of the time…but underneath, he chooses to jump from one unstable bass note to another.  The chords are solid, secure, but the bass movement has an “unresolved” quality.  (I once saw Jack Dee doing stand up, years ago, and in the middle of it he put his glass of water down on a stool, but right on the edge of it.  He carried on with the next joke, then, a few minutes later said…”you’re all worried about the water aren’t you?”)  It’s like that, both comforting and disorientating. Like building a statue on a plinth that is slightly too small.

“Tonight” takes the lyrics and sprinkles not fairy dust, but seeds of doubt, all over them.  Tony says:

Today, all day I had the feeling/ a miracle would happen”

On that word “to-DAY”, what should be a solid, life-affirming chord is instead a slightly hollow sound, the fifth in the bass shocks us not with a horrifying dissonance, but with the most boring note of the chord that “fits” but sounds wrong.  It’s the grey suit, the fake “thank you” face after an unwanted Christmas present. A half sneeze.

We know it’s ending badly for these characters, but they don’t, and so their swooping melodies are somehow “unaware” of the shifting sands in the bass.  Of course, Bernstein didn’t invent any of this.  He used his knowledge and applied it.  Brahms did this kind of thing a lot, and so did many composers before him.  And Keith Jarrett does it too.  I like a band called “Blonde Redhead”; they do it.  Sometimes music has no fixed bass, but a moving line, another melody that means simple chords can be heard more than one way as the bass line moves.  “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five is a good example. Come on Ed Sheeran, have a go.

I can’t quite decide what comes first here, the knowledge or the feeling.  My gut tells me that the knowledge points you, as a composer or as a listener, to the source of the feeling A fifth, or a third, in the bass when you are expecting a root has always produced this effect, like time it stands still.  We do not invent it, we reveal its long term whereabouts, put its timelessness in a new context.

Music theory, or knowledge, is not lacking in emotion, vibe, or feeling.  It is like a summation of all the gut instincts of every composer, songwriter, improviser and performer which, being too big to keep in its original form, is condensed into a “boring” compressed file of lists, notes, principles.  You don’t follow it, you unwrap it. It’s like complaining that the ingredients of a cake, having not been put in the oven, taste flat and cold.

Chord sequences stand up like a table, and if you want to build one with three legs you’d better know where to put them.  Of course, there are still many beautiful four legged tables waiting to be built, but there might be a reason why no one has ever put legs in the middle.  To do so is not a “new discovery”, or a “revolution”. It is a pile of broken planks on the floor and nowhere to put your dinner.

Pass the salt.

Vertigo At The British Museum

So much is free, but you can’t hold it, can’t touch it, you don’t own it. Well, “you can’t take it with you” as they say.  Why hold on to something?  But when you get a digital something, you have the ghost of it, the music, the book, the film; it’s free but it’s gone. You are holding on to air.

I went to the British Museum recently, and there it’s different; old school.  You can walk past things, you can, in theory, touch them (signs saying “please do not touch the exhibits” only encourage it.  I have never seen a sign saying “do not touch the MP3s”, because, well, you can’t).  Egyptian gods stare down the aisles and ages, Greek bodies are held in split-second frozen marble.  And under glass, ancient thoughts written down are too far back in time to find or feel.

This stuff is old.  Really old.  The feeling is strangely vertiginous, as if looking back is like looking down, and the further you look the higher up is the precipice from which that past is viewed.  Looking into the strange, ossified eyes of an Egyptian mask, it seems every smile has behind it a thousand others, and in front of it many more to come.  Years ago, and years yet to live.  It seems impossible that this has happened.  I catch my present day grimace’s reflection and find it lacking.

Recurring dreams of childhood dreams left me with a kind of “fear of infinity”, and a quick google has identified this as apeirophobia.  For a long word, this strikes me as being too short, abrupt almost; it should have within it an impossible cycle of repeats that can never end.  It should be spelt up a kind of Escher staircase, or possibly down a spiral one.  Apeirophobeirophobeirophobeir…o…..ph….

Faces smile back at me, perfect and timeless.  We assume that to create something timeless is a good thing – yes, Hotel California, what a timeless classic etc.  For me, timelessness is a nightmare of arrested activity, a trapped movement, invisible mucus wrapped around me like a coiled snake.  Air into vacuum.  Michelangelo’s David will always be youthful and virile, a snapshot (or sculpture, the only thing they had in those days, terribly time consuming) perhaps taken before his later decline into obesity and alcoholism.  Like Instagram, these are models of ourselves we cannot match.

But then we arrive in the Japanese Galleries, and this is why I came. They have the lights low here, to try and halt the inevitable decay of the treasures within.  It’s never busy.  Silk scrolls curl, woodblock prints fade, everything is fragile, is broken, ceramic pots are wonky and endearing.  It is not timeless, because the effects of time, the aesthetic benefits of time, are seen here everywhere.  It is full of time.

An iPhone 6s, for example, is exterminated well before its natural demise to make way for an upgrade, maybe one of these new ones with a screen that goes past the edge of the handset (to where?).  We don’t get to see it decompose, it’s corners fraying and worn, signs of use making it more beautiful, more personal, lived in, like an old book or wrinkled face.  The Japanese call this wabi sabi, the acceptance of transience and imperfection, where an object only really reaches its full glory as it begins to lose its shine.   Beauty as process.  Dropping your phone on the pavement or down a toilet doesn’t count.  The internet can document the passing of time (it is mainly about the passing of time) and yet nothing ages…..it’s merely information, a shared thought trapped in purgatory between the mind and the world of real things.

Back in the Japanese galleries, my phone’s message notification disturbs the murky light.  Must make some time to get back to them, just need to find my bank details and address and phone number, I don’t like to keep people waiting.

Raw War

Instagram puts our pictures in a box, meaning, a square. When you upload a photo, in a photo-type format, which is usually landscape or portrait, it appears as a square. In a box, a symmetrical box of picture. As if it were simply storing information, “content”, more efficiently, like a cake tin.

No one listens for longer than ten seconds to anything anymore, or will look at something long enough to see the details that the Instagram box leaves out. It puts our pictures in a box. It doesn’t ask us, how about a box for this picture, it would help us a lot of you could make it a box, we like everything to be the same format, despite the fact that a ratio closer to the Golden Section is well known to be more aesthetically pleasing. It does it because it makes no difference. To ask for a large and be handed a small. This is your size.

A box is symmetrical. It’s like a face isn’t. It’s like a painting isn’t. It’s like the dimensions of anything made by nature, prior to the long awaited arrival of the human race, isn’t. We learnt about the Golden Section from nature, and therefore, by implication, from ourselves. Our hidden selves. Our non-symmetrical gut feeling once told us that one long side and one short side is good, look at a tree, look at that animal, the ratio of head to body, look at my head and body for that matter. Animals do not have, broadly speaking, a head at each end.

Numbers are good for symmetry, a human tool for counting things. You can play games with numbers and symmetry comes out. They are not, however, good for the blues, which often is twelve bars long, and at other times is as long as the person singing the thing wants it to be. If you listen for longer than ten seconds to a blues track on YouTube you will hear this in action.

Symmetry reminds me of things that are “technically possible” but perhaps undesirable. In theory it could happen, in nature rare that it does.

On a typical week of train journeys, there are more people than there used to be talking loudly to themselves as if no one else was there.

Dance like nobody’s watching. They will only watch for ten seconds so make it quick.

Instagram puts my pictures in a box.

Perhaps I can change the settings.

Rituals

These days I need reading glasses.  I can’t see what’s in front of my face, as they say, and so on they go, the rest of the world receding into a blurry backdrop,   Putting on glasses is a ritual.  It’s like the raising or lowering  of a veil, or the laying of a table, perhaps the other-worldliness of submerging yourself in water (suddenly, baptism makes a lot of sense).  The dropping of the needle, the scratchy moments before the music begins, a marking out of a sacred space.  

Picture a Zen meditation class in Highbury, where some white middle class Englishmen in medieval Japanese robes explained that, within the confines of the space this room, there were no shoes allowed.  More lifestyle enlightenment, I thought, in a lifestylishly smug way, quite pleased with myself.  Tut tut.  The romantic nostalgia of these posh quasi-monks made me feel like an extra in a sixth form staging of “The Seven Samurai”.   On reflection, and after wanting to run them through with a big sword, I appreciated the “otherness”; once fully clothed, now barefoot in Islington.

Before beginning a solo performance, pianist Cecil Taylor danced across the stage towards the piano, pausing, circling like a vulture, raising a talon and sharpening his beak before almost attacking the instrument.  Let’s face it, it’s not much different to the popular pill popping, the purpose being broadly the same, but like a lucid dreamer he can snap out of it if he wants to.  Turn on and off the supply of whatever is taking him under.   I envy him.  That night he basically didn’t give a shit what we thought.  A silent titter seemed to waft around the audience, but the next hour saw them drawn in to that same space, his space, leaving their seats dizzy at the close of  the journey.  So, in that game where you have to choose one, my superpower would be that lack of inhibition.  That willingness to leave the real world.  Whilst everyone else is flying above the clouds and reading minds, I would simply dance myself a little mimed story in a purple tracksuit.

Rituals clear space, stop time, focus the mind and the body.  Religions are useful primarily for this reason, enforcing their strange and arbitrary timetables, sunrise and Sundays, days of rest and of celebration, a dash of incense here and there.  The nearest I get to that is to close my Facebook tab before writing a blog.  And that will be open again pretty soon.  People would get more done, and with better focus, if they had to get up a ladder to post on Facebook.  

It used to be different. In student days, I would break up the routine by watching “Neighbours” at 1.30.  It was hardly a call to prayer, but it did the job, my daily shift of practice and essays divided conveniently in two by the shattered dreams and emotional love stories of future Australian celebrities.  I was the turning over the LP of my otherwise formless day; side 1 and side 2.  A neutral space, a cerebral no-man’s land.  And needless to say, the repeat of “Neighboirs” at 5.30 was strictly off limits., my own personal heresy.

These altered states remind me of  what Margaret Atwood talks about in one of her lectures on writers and writing; the double.  A writer who writes, and a writer who does the dishes, two halves of a single body.   The writer who lives, and the one who lives on after that life.  The hand on the keyboard, or the pen, like the dropping needle, is a sign that he or she is somewhere else,  or someone else.  And perhaps the writing and the reading, playing and listening, are one in the same state.

So there’s me and there’s my musician.  My playing side is bold, carefree, mischievous in a temporarily suspended time, a guest in a hotel where someone else does all the housework.  And when he’s finished, after the applause (let’s be optimistic), the somewhat anxiety-ridden, earth bound chap that lurches and lumbers through life, me, takes over.

Nowadays we have access to these ritualised states very easily, but it’s difficult to go very deeply into them.  I am writing this on a tube train, on a so-called phone.  It’s very rare I call people on it.  But if I want to write something on it, preparation time is almost non-existent.  It’s about five seconds. Open app, click pen and paper shaped icon, begin.  It even suggests words you might consider before writing them.  Without a thought in my head, there is a guarantee that some words will appear.   With one eye on the stations, trying to notice if someone needs my seat, I’m not under yet, still in the real world.  But soon I’ll have my glasses on, and if I want to I can look over the top of them, an action which causes my eyebrows to be involuntarily raised in an apparent gesture of superiority.  I hope the other passengers don’t notice.  But I’ve arrived at the station and, with no time to pack my glasses away in their case (the other end of the ritual), they hang perilously tucked in the neck of my shirt as I pick up my bag , caught walking in the increasingly small space between real and imagined worlds.  Mind the gap and all that.

“Q” is for…

“Q Samba” : Arto Lindsay, from “Mundo Civilizado”

https://youtu.be/JkEMwcm4vbM

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Arto Lindsay.  The geeky, skinny kid at school, scribbling in his notebook when he thinks no one’s looking, or when he thinks that people think he thinks no one’s looking.  Probably just schoolboy crush scribbles, arrows through hearts, epigrams.  Eyes almost upstaged by his owl-like lenses, which are looking straight at you, and it’s a hard stare to look back at.  People don’t.  Prom Queens, though, might take him home in one of those High School movies, people would learn to look beyond appearances, towards new experiences, everyone would learn things and nothing would change.  Music, credits, thank yous, etcetera.

But he’s an eccentric.  A real one, not a muscle boy they put in glasses to indicate intelligence, reticence and hostility to games lessons.  He is thin, thin like he lives on some unknown energy, some ambiguous pulse.  He plays guitar, but no real notes, just a noise, and only when it’s called for. Mostly it just hangs around his neck, as it does on this song.  The weight of it might kill him.

Through the gate, now the path winds to the door, you pass sculptures, perpendicular pagan gods staring down suburban sidewalks, old amplifiers, guitar strings wound around slow growing creepers. Carnival melting into darkness and out again.   It’s taking forever to get to the door.

Shall we listen to some music?  He reaches for a cd, the cover a photo of a woman’s face, or maybe a girl’s, her expression masked by the blood red smear of a rose.  Smiling eyes though; maybe.  A strange, disjointed guitar, Brazilian, lurches into a kind of beat that doesn’t belong where it is, as a voice, half-spoken, half sung, asks:

How do you do that?  

Did you just make it up?  

Is there a special need for that?

Now don’t just make it up”

Not exactly poetry, this is like a kid asking questions at school.  But he grows up fast;

“How do you shake just that and not shake all the rest

Breaking all those beats apart you careless hypnotist”

A careless hypnotist, still thinking about what that implies.  The lyrics feel like they are meaning something, but they sometimes fold in on themselves, like…

You dance like you’re not alone

You dance like I’m not here

Often they seem like a study in a single sound…

Your supple cheekiness

Supreme funkiness

Your sure footedness

And you pelvic finesse.”

But that last line,”pelvic finesse”, what the hell is that?  Animal sexuality crossed with featherlight delicacy?  The music echoes the words, mismatched but familiar sounds, somehow stitched together, a brash and buzzy keyboard flooding the light and sunny samba like chilli sauce in Angel Delight, its line left jagged and raw like the edges of an awkward conversation.  Samba school drums sucked into a lop-sided sample, another piece in the jigsaw of disorder, of musical and verbal memories, those memories that for each person are their own.

Except for the Prom Queen. Tradition dictates that her head must be empty, as she trots home to recount, perhaps reluctantly, some other version of these few short minutes.

 

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You’ll Get Over It (obscenity warning).

When I was a kid at school my teacher called me something that no teacher would, or could, ever call a pupil today.  He called me a ****.  I was twelve, and so were the other twenty nine sniggering boys who were in the room at the time.

A bit of background.  Every Monday my clarinet lesson was smack in the middle of the morning, which disrupted my Technical Drawing class, a joyless class where we learnt to draw perfect circles with dangerously sharp compasses and dissect them with straight lines.  To ask permission to leave the lesson, I had to go through this wretched pantomime of putting up my hand, and him saying;

What is it Noble?”

And me saying, or stammering rather;

I’ve got a…a clarinet lesson, sir.” 

And every Monday brought a new insult.  Here’s one.

Off to your banjo lesson again are we?

Despite predating by some thirty years my acute interest in Appalachian music, I nevertheless felt it necessary to correct his use of the first person plural “we”….oh no, that was a dream I had….no I was terrified of him actually.  And the Boomtown Rats had just released “I Don’t Like Mondays”.  People said about Frank Sinatra, they said it felt like he was singing just for you, and Bob Geldof’s piercing whine went similarly to my bobby socked core.

So the **** marked a new development in this man’s reign of terror.  Often, he would grace our drawings with epigrams like “well done, 3/10”, thoroughly deserved when a dissecting line was one or two degrees out of whack.   Evidently it was important to start priming the kids who would go on to push Technical Drawing into the future, the men from the boys as it were, the men who were twelve from the boys who were twelve.  Many a pre-adolescent boy’s dream of a glittering future that was somehow bathed in knowledge of angles and set squares was dashed on the rocks of Mr Wrack’s brutal marking system.

Anyway, the word has fascinated me since.  It inspires such fear and hushed disapproval.  To say this word, you have to be with a social group possessing an almost molecular familiarity with each other, because in any other situation it is a huge risk.  It’s an admission of baseness, a declaration of debauchery, it reveals in its messenger a complete and absolute lack of consideration for the feelings of anyone else.  To say **** is a sacrilegious act.

There are many good hearted people in the world, and some are religious and some are not.  Many of the latter (I suppose I would like to count myself among them) take comfort in the smug knowledge that we do not believe in anything that does not conform to hard science, that is received wisdom masquerading as fact, that takes allegorical stories as historical document, that views as obscene anything that breaks rules originating in the faded and remote histories of places unseen and unknowable.  Finally, the hard won common sense nurtured by our up-to-date knowledge and enlightened democracy has triumphed over old world superstition, mired as it was in the shock and awe of religious splendour and corruption.  We see things from every angle, we refuse to bow to prejudice in any way, and in doing so we walk on brave and strong into a new world of understanding.  It’s really great.

“Erm, did someone just say the c word?  I don’t use that word.”

“Why not?”

“It’s ugly.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, you know, it’s….”

“Shunt, punt, hunt, grunt, runt.”

“It degrades a part of the human body that for some is…”

“Prick.  Cock.”

It’s like arguing for dinosaurs against a Creationist.

Should words have rights?  I am angered and upset by the discrimination against this word on the basis of ugliness (this would not work if **** were a person), inappropriateness (oh come on, what does that mean), sexism (in a world where “dickhead” is so often the only word left to describe such a huge range of people in life).  ****.  Listen to the sound of it, its perfect bluntness, it’s over in a moment but it leaves such a glorious dent in any conversation.  Maybe it’s too good for us?  Maybe we have not yet proven ourselves worthy of its use?  I think we need to show some humility in the face of a word like this.

 

So what does this have to do with music?  Well, sitting at the piano and trying to find the next section for a piece of music I had written, I found the perfect foil in some Elton John-styled chords, which got me thinking of the eighties, then school, and then this very story.  Mr Wrack.  Icon of my school days.  Immortalised forever in my tune of the same title.  Who’s laughing now?

What a cunt.