I Have Trouble With History

“I didn’t really buy any of Sun Ra’s records because I could just go and hang out when they were performing, or go to one of their rehearsals, so I didn’t need the record!

Lonnie Liston Smith interviewed by Anton Spice .

Well, that’s cool Lonnie. The thing is, I’ve got everything in my little sardine box music screen machine here, so I don’t need to go out. Musically, I am staring blankly at the pasta section in a supermarket that stretches as far as the eye can see, marvelling at what I could eat. I’m not eating it, but I’m marvelling at my marvellous “eating future”. I’m going to check that out. The trolley’s still empty but think of what could fill it. No-Wave, post-punk, fettuccini, stuff my kids listen to, all things I’m going to check out. Really soon. It’s a really exciting time. Or it will be. The future’s bright.

Not all music, however, is designed for solitary listening, and we know that because people keep going out for it. It’s so cheap to have it sent straight into your ears, yet people spend a lot of money to be around other people listening to live music in a field where the wind may all but blow the sound out of earshot, and most of what you can hear is other people singing along to each other as the band do something somewhere out of sight. People do listen, even if it’s often with their eyes. Social media has propped up a kind of military takeover of the other four senses by the one that now reigns unchallenged; seeing. Seeing is believing.

As you get away from the festival experience, an event defined by numbers in many ways, immersion in music is more an act of will. Sometimes you have to do that yourself, make a conscious decision, lower yourself into the bath of it rather than wait for an attendant with a big bucket to pour it over you. Jazz has always been like that for me; and this goes for its history too.

My knowledge of jazz came from record covers laid out on the floor like a soap opera storyboard, this follows that, swing-bebop-cool-hardbop etc etc. I knew the accepted story, but my knowledge was not a bodily thing, it wasn’t in me, wasn’t backed up by any kind of experience. Jazz history played out like the Battle Of Waterloo with toy soldiers, and you just kind of put them in whatever position you felt most likely. The music’s past, and the past I would like to have experienced but didn’t, was for me a construct, pieced together from the musical fragments available at the time.

It all started around 1983, or thereabouts, The Churchill Library, Bromley, an exploded sonic star where the slowly falling fragments were catalogued alphabetically. Records I took home because they were there. Sun Ra’s “Mystery Of The Two”. Stravinsky’s “Requiem Canticles”. One casualty of the move from analogue to digital was the Duke Ellington with Jimmy Blanton album, which now sounds wrong because the scratch that made it jump a beat in 1984 is missing. Nothing was in any kind of order. Earl Hines, for example, he was an early favourite, but nobody had informed me that learning to play jazz required starting with later players, where it’s less about playing the piano and more about “information”, “content”. It was too late for me. Hines, Stravinsky, Ellington, Cecil Taylor – I started a file under “piano sonorities” and staggered on. For me they were connected by sound, as if the sounds themselves lived, went to school, met other sounds and reproduced.

But if I’d seen Hines bump into a young Cecil Taylor at the florist, I might have made that other connection, might have seen those worlds joined for myself. A kind of social bond that ensures the passage of the tradition, where it finds its own winding path, through accident and circumstance, seemingly disparate worlds coming together in a shared taste for daffodils. I had no history, no tradition, no reason to be doing what I did aside from a general dissatisfaction with life as it was presented to me and so, lacking a social connection, I made my history up, a fake news repository of unchecked facts and suppositions, and I surveyed it as I imagine the owner of a train set would, congratulating myself on the detail whilst knowing real engines don’t run on tables.

History was never my subject, I just couldn’t hold facts or remember names, couldn’t visualise the things happening. I never understood how, considering our impressive roster of cruel mistakes when we get together in big groups, we never learnt from them. It’s unlikely that lessons in jazz history would have helped me, but I would have liked to have seen where Duke Ellington bought his vegetables, I think I’d have learnt a lot from that.

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“The word is a virus”

The word is now a virus. The flu virus may have once been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence.Try halting sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.

William Burroughs “The Ticket That Exploded”

God, the blueprint for the modern day “influencer”, said In the beginning was the word…”. Ah no wait a minute, he didn’t say it, someone said he said it. They said it, wrote it down and then they said he said it. Then….

“…and the word was with God, and the word was God”.

“He” is now saying it’s so true that He owns it and He is it. A confused rant of a sentence, like a cast off from Trump’s Twitter feed. High order narrative, some real (Holy) Ghost writing.

I must say though, it’s nice to have a break from all that questioning, to just relax and be able to accept the truth. We like that. It’s reasonable to want that in life.

I used to read “The Guardian” a lot, and whenever there was an article on something I had knowledge of (rare, mostly in the Saturday review and mostly about music), the fact that it was on that elevated platform, that someone was paid to write about it, made it fair game for criticism. It was an opinion of a different kind, perhaps more qualified, but also sporting a sign that said come and have a pop at me. It’s presence in print made it somehow solid, an object of tangible sides, a verbal statue worshipped by scholars and shat on by passing pigeons. But the shit didn’t stick like it does now, in full view of the great unwashed. Now we have Twitter, which is like a huge guestbook in the foyer of the bed and breakfast of the universe, but without that kind of tact and goodwill. For “The room was cosy”, read “You boxed me in and now I will tell the world”.

Our communications are now in the font of our choice, not in face-to-face exchanges, as if every passing thought had the “Penguin Modern Classics” logo emblazoned on its spine. Print is not the same as talk. Generation X-ers like me don’t hear your voice when we read, we hear that mysterious voice, transparent, murky, the voice of the book. Formless, God-like. So it isn’t about the validity of the statements themselves, but the way they are received.

If trust in the written word is wearing thin, spare a thought for the camera. “My camera never lies anymore” warbled Eurovision titans Bucks Fizz”. These days, it lies through its teeth for money and a handful of upturned thumbs. Thank you Instagram Influencers (it’s hard not to think of influenza when I hear that word). An influencer implies an implement, like a razor, a mixer, a machine that does the job of a human. Advertise your detox teas here, show off your outfit (soon to be returned to the shop at no cost to you). There’s money in this fluff.

A virus replicates itself exactly, the word is passed on verbatim, viewed over and over, a 3D printed aphorism. I think Burroughs was right. The word is a virus. The air is toxic with half-truths. It’s a shame he never lived to see the “gone viral” phenomenon, he would have loved it, another one of his riffs on modern culture that eventually became embedded within it.

Perhaps in the future, irresponsible use of “the word” will be punishable by some kind of community service (“you realise, madam, that those words you are using are designated fictional , descriptive use has been illegal since the recent quarantine was declared…”). Billboard posters with photographs of people with hands over their ears “Use your words responsibly – lest we forget”, this kind of thing.

Words are powerful, you can’t just let anyone use them. Maybe they will become the sole preserve of the creative pursuit, jokes, poems, novels….fiction. Fiction packaged as fiction. Emoticons seems to be on the rise, perhaps they will soon be the prime currency of factual language. All powerful “in the beginning”, maybe words as we know them will simply fade out at the end, into the pictograms from whence they came …………..🦉🦄🈴😎😀🤖

Small things

“The guy who lived downstairs didn’t have a nasty bone in his body. This made getting around difficult.”

(Unpublished, unfinished short story).

I’ve been reading “Sing To It“, a new collection of short stories by Amy Hempel, her first in over a decade. She doesn’t write many, but when she does they are extremely good. They don’t take long. There is no time for an arc as such, not easy to say for sure what happens to her characters either side of the text. If there’s a moral to these stories, it’s ambiguous. Some stories are only a page long (and the font is obligingly large).

Chuck Palahaniuk, who, if I knew him, would presumably hate me to refer to him as the author of “Fight Club”, said this about her:

“Every sentence isn’t just crafted, it’s tortured over.”

So I got into Amy Hempel simply because someone who I think is a great writer recommended her, and sometimes you want a doctor’s opinion about who should take your kidneys out.

I also like that quote about torture, I can believe it.

Short stories are the shrugged shoulder to the raised pointy finger of the giant literary work of genius. There is not much to look at except the sentences, their melody, little observations shaped into something more than simply what is being said. More than the person saying it and more than what they stand for. Something outside the visible, something you could look at and not see the writer.

I wish performing was a bit more like that but it isn’t always, and it especially isn’t always now. We all want to know who made everything and how, and why, perhaps so we are tempted to think we could do it ourselves. We want to see the evidence, check with our eyes that what we are experiencing is authentic, that we are justified in feeling something.

My opening sentence remains, the vertical blinking cursor daring me to add to it. Perhaps I won’t. This blog is already too long, and by the time you read it I probably will have shortened it still further.

One thing shorter than an Amy Hempel short story is a tweet, originally the sole preserve of anthropomorphised songbirds, now a popular vessel of communication amongst humans that customarily lacks the musical quality of the feathered variety.

Reading short stories helps me recover from time spent on Twitter. So it’s not just the brevity then.

(Sorry that was a bit of a moralising ending. Writing well is hard. Baby steps……)

The Arm Of The Cat

You know in Chinese restaurants

The waving, brightly coloured cats

One arm moves

In quasi human salutation

………….

A cat could never sit

Straight up like that

And a person

Gets tired

And anyway

They are actually Japanese

………..

The best and worst

Of both worlds

………….

We can eat and eat

Or merely sit

Let things be what they will

The arm of the cat that waves or is still.

In defence of journalism…

The first trick is to lure people in with a headline.

I’ve had my fair share of rants about journalists, public and private, as if they were all peas out of the same pod, and I’ve since regretted it. Writing blogs, rolling around in that vanity publishing utopia, has made me realise a few things.

And one thing’s for sure. I’m not a Writer. Not because I can’t do it, but because I often can’t think of anything to write about. It’s not easy. I wish I could simply shunt sounding things together, end to end, without it needing to be about something. This seems to work with music, but words need to hang on something, they must describe. We can’t all be EE Cummings.

Journalists, it seems to me, are in the trickiest position of all. They are obliged to write about the world as it is, or as it seems to them. The priority is to get copy out. Then they get censored (sorry, “edited”), squashed, collated, chopped. What’s left might be an opinion that is no longer quite their own, flapping like a dying fish on the deck of a sailing boat.

I’ve tried writing about music I like, and every time I try and describe what I think goes on, I often feel like I am just adding needless bumf to what is already there, like draping tinsel over a Ming vase.

It’s not easy. Dead heroes and heroines are easier to write about, because you miss them, so you write about that loss. The strange jolt of death that catapults an artist from forgotten to iconic for a few days. That’s readable. But it all reminds me of that film of Jackson Pollock painting with his turkey baister, crouching over a huge canvas. The action is all in his head, the spatial and textural sense, you are witnessing creation but not seeing it. Stravinsky sits at his desk with a pen and glasses, and out come the masterpieces.

So I’ve come to terms with the necessity of writing about the stuff “around” the music, the people writing and performing it, the people they in turn are seen to represent and reflect. Maybe music itself doesn’t quite fit on the page? Maybe audiences have to come out and get it themselves. Perhaps a tasty headline or a well doctored picture helps a bit, but in the end the horse and the water are still locked in timeless battle.

So, men and women of journalism everywhere, I hereby endorse the frankly worrisome task of writing about my upcoming album. My dad would have said “cheque’s in the post”. “I’ll BACS you” doesn’t really cut it, but thats all there is. I’m no poet, that’s for sure.

Sonny Rollins is here…

I found my way into improvisation via ragtime, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet, essentially dance music without Ecstasy. Or, in my case, dancing. Learning about this music, and how to play it, you immerse yourself in a world that is, from the first time you cross its borders, essentially alienating for many people. Anyone who’s seen Woody Allen’s films can get along with early jazz and swing, but after that, it gets knotty. The dancing got left behind and bebop asserted a more highbrow approach, and this is where jazz as repellent starts. But at some point in my mid teens, this became the sound I had in my head, it was what I wanted to come out every time I thought about playing the piano. (Thinking is all very well, I’m still working on it now.)

Still, it’s the boiling lobster principle. After twenty, thirty years, you take a sound for granted that most people hear as a kind of indulgent white noise. Growing into it, I was around others who felt the same draw, we nodded our heads together to music which appears to have no beat, no tune and no purpose. This was in some way mirrored in our own lives of monastic practice by day, and Guinness by night. The music was and is offensive, actively disliked by those who don’t understand it, and nothing is more powerful than seeming to tell someone they are stupid. It was “everyone playing at the same time.”

Occasionally the “j” word gets popular again, and other streams of music appear; the advantage of jazz as an influencing genre is that you can often take half of what’s already in it and make something more digestible. This stuff is essential for the growth of the ecosystem of the music, but there are some musicians who manage to steer a path in and out of these currents, they are “likeable”, but they are “heavy” too. You stay with them and they with you. For me, it’s Sonny Rollins.

Rollins has always cut through the noise. Charlie Parker’s records in the forties still shock today, bursting with an energy that shoots out at all angles. He seemed to stream through the sky like a comet, died young and broke and looking old. Rollins survived.

He took Parker’s language and sound and expanded in all directions. The first good sign is that you cannot teach anyone how to play like Rollins, nor can you even pretend to. He appears to pluck sounds out of the air. He can weave around chord changes with impossible elegance and groove one minute, then hack away at one note like a lumberjack at a redwood the next. He moves sound around like a voice. Language becomes secondary. It’s not a “style”; it’s simply being good, being fast…..not playing fast, being fast. The only way to mimic Rollins is to be as witty, as imaginative, and as quick as the man himself. It’s impossible and it’s inspiring. The music is dancing again.

When I think of the archetypal improviser, someone who shuts their eyes and listens and simply plays what they hear, it’s him.

I am saying this because he is still alive. I want him to know. There are too many obituaries.

Vinyl

After checking the size of Hokusai’s print “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” against the size of a large shoe box I can confirm that one will not go inside the other. It’s completely buggered my analogy. I wanted to say that this image, which has been plastered all over the world in posters, murals, fridge magnets and billboards, was originally small enough to go in a shoe box. I’ve seen the print at its original size. You have to lean in towards it, squint a bit, shrink yourself down to the size of the people in the boat beneath that frozen wave. Seemingly dwarfed by a flattened perspective and camouflaged by colour, the eye then zooms in to Mount Fuji in the background, miles away yet vivid in its presence. Scale seems a huge part of the experience of art in general, from huge, immersive installations to miniatures that force us  to reduce ourselves to a tiny, critical mass.

This is how it feels to me to listen to vinyl, memories frozen in an unwieldy, outdated format that now thaw on to my new turntable with a slow drip-drip of recognition. This is not, by the way, a treatise on the sound quality of vinyl versus that of digital music. I’m supremely unqualified to comment on that.

I’m thinking about Hokusai again. There is the wave, the mountain, the boat, then there is the artist, and finally, the painting, each represents a kind of mental jump, a process.  The bumps as the needle finds its groove act as a ritual clearing of space, everything after that is announced as a representation of sound, a mirroring of tiny motions of air made at some other time in some other place. As a listener it puts you in a different place, imagining the wires that can carry vibrations through time and space, back to the source.

If you are lucky, there’s no real noise on the record itself, but if you are luckier still, there’s a just a little, like textured notepaper, a skin even, a glimpse of the moon through clouds.  The covering is a kind of invitation.

I used hurl myself off diving boards at my local swimming pool, and the hardest thing was that the boards got higher, you started to see not the surface of the water but the bottom of the pool, which added a cool 20 feet to the apparent distance. I would stand on that edge until someone made a splash, reminding me of the point at which I would be hitting, slightly out of whack, the water. Those were the days.

Records have that crackle that tells me it’s not real time, it’s a record of the time. To hear the music is to peer beyond that skin, through it, to make oneself the size of the fishermen and feel a wave you could fit in the palm of your hand threaten to upend your boat. Digital music is like a gas, it’s like tightrope walking in space, where there is no real difference between your feet on the rope or off. There are no edges to it, a borderless noise that appears in the air, a swimming pool with no discernible bottom. It’s sort of creepy. You can’t fall off.  It’s like swimming by lying on a table and moving arms and legs, hoping that one day you’ll get over your aversion to water.  It’s far away, distant somehow, a hologram of Frank Sinatra in your living room. It’s a kind of pre-listening….it says, I’ll listen to see if I want to listen later on. I listen to a lot of digital music, and I’ve realised that it’s me that has to lean in to it, it won’t come to me.

It seems the most remarkable thing about the recent surge in vinyl popularity (and I realise I am, true to form, thinking about it some ten years after it started) is that life can go backwards. The niggling thought that all human beings are condemned to a kind of pathological progress ending in disaster has eased off a bit. All is not lost, all is not forgotten. Will we all sit around the piano on an Edwardian Sunday again, singing songs we all know whilst our shopping is bought, delivered, cooked and quite possibly digested by some kind of automated cyber drones? Will music ever be injected in a liquid form, bypassing the cumbersome necessity for moving air and eardrums whilst outside people discover the pleasure of travel by stagecoach? Can we combine forward and retrograde motion? Is this the future? 

Maybe the “newest” thing we can do as a species, is to stick the car in reverse occasionally? To take back some of the stuff we bought, wear our clothes more than once, to listen to a scratched copy of “Bad Manners'” first album again.  Perhaps going forwards and backwards at the same time is the greatest leap forward, and always has been. One thing’s for sure, shoes won’t come in a box in the future, so enjoy that while it lasts.

 

 

 

 

Notes