Thursday, 25 February 2016

Songs About Actors

Songs about actors, who could have imagined it would produce such a rich vein? And none of includes songs about ex-actor Ronald Reagan since they tend to address his post-actor career in the White House. Sadly no songs either by the wonderfully named band JFA, as in "Jodie Foster's Army". Still, no shortage of ditties devoted to thesps.

1) Julian Cope - "Robert Mitchum"
Only Julian Cope could pull off something so twee as this. Imagine it as the soundtrack to "Night Of The Hunter"? Nope, me neither.

2) Kim Carnes - "Betty Davis' Eyes"
Not to be confused with The Adverts' "Gary Gilmore's Eyes", or Half Man Hal;f Biscuit's spoof on this "Dickie Davis' Eyes". Which is a pity as I prefer both of those infinitely to this pop pap, even if in the video people beat out a rhythm on the floor with their hands. Too much of that and they'll have Betty Davis' hands.

3) Lee Perry & The Upsetters - "Clint Eastwood Rides Again"
But Marc I hear you cry, this is basically an instrumental, so what has it got to do with Clint? Other than the ridin' along on ma horse rhythm and the increasing insinuation of gun shots you mean? Reggae artists love cowboys and spaghetti Westerns, honouring them in many a song and even artists taken the names of cowboys, such as well Clint Eastwood and Dillinger (all right he was more 20s bankrobber than cowboy). My chart, my rules.

4) Angel Corpus Christi - "John Cassavetes"
Try tracking this obscure album down... Amazed it's on YouTube to be honest. John Cassavetes, actor and film director. His work was talked about in hushed tones with great reverance, I saw one called I think "Husbands". It was fairly turgid. I wonder if he's still so highly regarded now that he's been dead for so long? The movie world can be as unforgiving as the music biz if you don't put out new product. Anyone remember Alex Cox these days? Thought not.

5) Bauhaus - "Bela Lugosi's Dead"
True story this. After my university finals but before we graduated we had a lot of time to kill. So we decided to play a gig outside the halls of residence. Plugged into the basement and off we went. Only the bassist could actually play, I was hitting a beer barrel with a sledgehammer for percussion (I was heavily influenced by Test Department at the time). And the song the bassist could really play well was this. The singer knew the lyrics. He was very active in the Animal liberation movement, hardly what one associates with the Goth revival as typified by this song. Funny world.

6) Billy Bragg - "Ingrid Bergman"
In which Billy punctuates his stand up repartee with a song 6 minutes into this video. Sorry about that.

7) Beastie Boys - "Lee Majors Come Again"
Let's crank it up with some noise. Lee Majors played the 6 Million Dollar Man on TV. As an actor you might not have given him more than 6 dollars. I think the Beasties may have drawn similar conclusions as the connection to lee Majors is tangential at best.

8) Nirvana - "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle"
KK was obviously much taken with Ms Farmer since he named his only daughter after her. I was never a great Nirvana fan, actually preferring the work of his Mrs, Courtney Love's "Hole". You want to make sure you put the speech marks round that or it takes on a whole different meaning. This song is even more dirgey than the usual Nirvana output. The name "Nirvana" was ironic right?

9) The Clash - "The Right Profile"
The Clash were always dropping references to real people in their songs. This checks the name of Montgomery Clift, actor in the classic "From Here To Eternity". Another actor who suffered a serious car crash, although he managed to eke out a tad more of his career after that. Now we've covered that, I don't have to post The Eagles' song "James Dean". What? If this was a chart for songs about actors involved in car crashes, then maybe...

10) MDC - "John Wayne Was A Nazi"
I don't feel I have to add anything to the song itself.

11) Natalie Merchant - "Lulu"
Okay let's take it down a notch or two. Merchant's paean to silent actress Louise Brooks, she of the famous hair do. What I called in one of my novels, the 'Roman helmet' cut.

12) Banarama - "Robert De Niro's Waiting"
God I hated this song when it came out. Still do. See, this is how generous I am posting songs I can't stand.

13) Madness - "Michael Caine"
This song was rubbish too. I'm beginning to think actors make lousy subjects for pop songs.

14) Sonic Youth - "Madonna, Sean And Me"
Bit of a cheat this one because everyone knows the song as "Expressway To Yr Skull", but for some reason when the album was released, this was the name they gave the track. Still, this revives my faith in the concept of the actor themed song, cos it is epic! Was lucky enough to hear them play it live a couple of times, walk off the stage at the end of their set and the guitar feedback was still squealing through the amps for a good few minutes later.

15) Serge Gainsbourg - "The Initials BB"
A song about his sometime collaborator on songs Bridget Bardo". Unless you speak french, you'll just have to take my word for it. I think Bardo has gone on to become the ultimate cat lady in her dotage.

16) Roxy Music - "2HB"
No, not a song devoted to the middle of the road in pencils, but extolling Humphrey Bogart. Bryan ferry sounds even more drawly than normal in this.

Just In From our NRA correspondent"
17) Stump - "Charlton Heston (Put His Vest On)"
God knows which bit of my deep-lying memory I dragged this one from, but a day after compiling the chart, this came to me.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Should I Stay Or Should I go? -The British Referendum on European Union

So now we have a date for the referendum. And the prospect of almost 4 months of wall to wall chatter on the subject, very little of which will be anything other than scare tactics as we had in the Scottish Independence referendum. Don't get me wrong, the politics of fear will come from both sides of the argument, or should that be non-argument, since the actual issues won't get heard among the shouting. On one side, the 'In' Campaign, we will have rolled out the fear of economic collapse and being left isolated in terms of security if we leave the EU; on the other, the 'Out', we will have fear of unlimited migration and fear of not retaining any useful sovereignty as all laws will emanate from Brussels if we remain in the EU.  And as to that last point, the anti-EU media in the UK have for years being waging a constant campaign to plant in the minds of the British, the 'outrageous' iniquities foisted upon them by the EU ('file under "you couldn't make it up"') such as Caribbean bananas being too curved to meet EU stipulations or bottled water not allowed to proclaim that it leads to re-hydration. For them the Brexit campaign didn't just start on Monday, but ever since the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992.

The entry into the arena of one Boris Johnson finally seemed to fire the starting gun on the campaigning, because it apparently lends a heavyweight political figure to oppose the stance of David Cameron who wants the UK to remain within the EU. The whole debate has become skewed to discuss the political machinations of the Conservative Party, because Cameron has already stated this will be his last term as Prime Minister and the fight to replace him has superceded the actual issue of EU membership. Which is doubly a pity as Boris Johnson really isn't worth a nation's attention, UNLESS he does become Prime Minister. Currently he is stepping down form being a rather poor Mayor of London, holds no power in Cabinet other than a token position and his amiable fop schtick does not play well north of London and the Home Counties, because Northerners are gruff sort of folk who won't wear his bumbling buffoonery. The number of gaffes and insults Boris has committed to communities of a Northern persuasion begins to require more than two hands to keep a tally of. I'm with the North on this one (channeling my Mother's Northern heritage I think I can pull it off with sincerity). If Boris Johnson does end up becoming Prime Minister, then the whole of the UK is a collective fool falling for his cuddly Uncle act.

I'm going to put my cards on the table now. I ardently hope we stay in the EU. But my reasons are as usual, wildly removed from most you will hear bandied about. My view is one of the long-term, motivated by both idealism and (non-parochial) ideology. I've written before (and here) about how a good deal of Britain's problems lie from its heritage and persistent belief that we are still a significant country on the world stages of economy and diplomacy. That the 'Great' in Great Britain is still justified. But I'd go deeper than that, I think many of the world's problems are ascribable to nation-states and nationalism. Therefore anything that brings us together in greater unions and breaks down nationalistic barriers is a good thing to my mind. The UK complaint about the EU being a political union as well as an economic one is actually the best argument for it, although the British will never see it that way. And yes, we are a long way off still from any full-scale political union, as witnessed by the EU's inability to act coherently on issues such as Ukraine, Syria and the migrant crisis. So I accept this is a very idealistic stance for me to take. You won't see anyone in the campaign calling for the UK to move towards more political union with the rest of Europe. We are an island nation and welcome that separation of the waters. More's the pity.

The thing is also that whichever side I plump for, would put my support behind things I am fundamentally opposed to. For example, if the UK did leave, then the City Of London would lose its central status as being the European financial nexus between Hong Kong in the East and New York in the West. The UK financial industry would be crippled as Europe repatriated everything probably to Frankfurt. Now the idealist in me would welcome that, as our reliance on capital and high finance since the 1980s has ushered in corrupt practises, corporate tax evasion, environmental exploitation and huge differentials between rich and poor. Yet I am also aware that without the wealth generated by the City of London, this country would be even worse off since it is one of the few wealth-generating services we have now we are bereft of a serious manufacturing base. Also I would be fundamentally against Turkey being admitted to the EU because of its poor human rights record and lack of true arts and media freedoms, I cannot believe it meets the entry requirements in these realms. But the morally corrupt equation is that Turkey's compliance is needed to deal with the migration crisis to the East of it and what we have that Turkey so badly craves is membership in the EU. It's also probably fair to say that certain other entry standards would see existing members fall short of meeting; Greece with regard to the economy, Hungary with regard to protected freedoms of minority groups and Polish press and media freedom, not least its current proposed legislation to outlaw holocaust denial where attributed to the Germans, but to not only permit such denial for any Polish atrocities, but to criminalise such claims.

The EU is not a perfect community by any means. But I think it's worth persevering with and seeking to help it realise its ultimate dream, even if that goes against the beliefs of the vast amount of my fellow Brits. If we do vote to pull out, apart from the instability of the two years to extricate our institutions and laws from those of the EU, it will precipitate constitutional crisis here as the Scots will certainly demand another independence referendum to follow on quickly, because they will vote to a man and woman to stay within the EU and therefore see themselves as wholly unrepresented by the rest of the UK's decision to pull out. And this leads to a final consideration. How often do we have these 'once in a generation referendums'? This would be the second referendum on Scottish independence in less than 5 years. If we vote to come out of the EU, it's unlikely we'll ever hold (or be allowed by the EU to hold) another referendum, to rejoin. But if we vote to stay in, how long before the anti-EU brigade agitate for another chance to decide the question? In the meantime, the media will continue to spew out reports of having to straighten our bananas...

Saturday, 20 February 2016

What on Earth Has Happened to "The New Musical Express"?

I used to read the NME religiously. Music was my groove and the NME its Bible-cum-DJ. As an opinion setter and source of new artists to try out it was second only to the late John Peel's radio show (albeit a rather distant second). More than that it was an entertaining read, with the likes of the two Dannys Baker & Kelly wondrously themed 7" single review page (the theme was always bathed in snark), or the from the underground authority of Charles Shaar-Murray & Nick Kent, the snotty teenage brat reporters on punk Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill, and the post-modernist musings of Paul Morley. I suppose the last time I read it was around 1990 and the 'Madchester' scene. It's intellectual weight might be judged by the fact after my second year exams at university, I went into the library and asked for 4 years worth of NME back copies for some research. The librarians complied without a bat of an eye and I spent a week researching everything on Joy Division in the four years of their existence, following their emergence and demise in real time as it was reported weekly by the press. I wrote my second ever stage play on the back of this research and it was performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1985.

I also once applied for a job at the magazine. They wanted a subeditor and the application was a CV and some photos of our choice which we had to caption 'in the house style'; to wit, snarkily. I was called in to meet the editor who appreciated my captions but my complete lack of any subediting skills or experience regretfully meant he couldn't offer me a job.

26 years later and I've called a mini-cab to transport me and family weekly shopping from the supermarket and I've nothing to read to kill the wait time. My supermarket is giving out free copies of the NME so I grab one. The fact that a supermarket has free NMEs by the exit doors should have been an indication in itself. 48 pages, 1 contents page, 20 pages of adverts. 4 pages of TV and film against 2 pages of new album reviews and 1 page of single reviews. Then there are only 6 pages devoted to music artist features, of which 1 is wholly taken up with the photo of Kanye West, this is a bit poor. The magazine is what I would describe as thin on music. The writing is bromidic, much of the Kanye piece is done as a photo journal. The only worthwhile music piece is an analysis of Beyonce's new video for its political messaging. But this is Beyonce for flip sakes, hardly cutting edge.

In the early pages there's comedian Katherine Ryan having a page long commentary piece which I can only assume is a regular feature. Now I love Katherine Ryan, cos she's hard hitting and funny in her comedy. Plus I once passed her coming out of my local bus station with her kid, so she rates as a local celebrity, but not one who is too big not to use the buses. Anyway, here Ryan is talking about Piers Morgan and Susan Sarandon, neither of whom I'm aware of having a new album out. I just can't quite see what the column is doing here and it's perhaps significant that it comes before any of the few pieces on musicians.Then I look back on the front cover and see there's a yellow circle proudly boasting "Music, Film, Style". Now the NME of old didn't restrict itself to just music and got involved in politics quite openly. But style was in passing, not the surface gloss and lifestyle its contemporary incarnation is presenting. Bereft of any cultural context, merely playing to hoped for popularity.

Yes we know it's a hard time for music and that print journalism is on its knees (RIP The print edition of "The Independent" newspaper announced this week). But NME I'm afraid you have become a pale shadow of your august forefathers and I'm afraid, utterly pointless.

From these:

to this:

Monday, 15 February 2016

Pin Cushion Heart - Flash Fiction

He pinned her to his chest. She snipped his grip with her long nails digging into his flesh and unstitched herself from his embrace. As she did so, he threaded his arms around her flanks and reeled her back in. He tilted his head to whisper directly in her ear and broached the subject of marriage. She scissored through his clasp and sewed herself to the wall where he would not be able to cincture her again. He extended his arms towards her “You seem stressed my darling”. She crossed stitched her arms to make a straitjacket of herself.  “Oh really, do I? Maybe because a man who embroiders everything that comes out of his mouth with promises he has no intention of keeping, just proposed marriage to me“. Darn it Rita!” “Oh put a sock in it Serge! You’re a thimblerigger of the first order”. “Look, I admit I may have dropped the odd stitch in my time, but you’ve changed me. Sewn up the emptiness that was deep within me. You’ve opened up this nit-wit’s clamshell and discovered the purl inside”. “Stop layering it on so thick. There is nothing that can selvage this relationship”. “Not even this ring?” He tried to lace her finger through it, but was unable to thread the eye of this particular clenched needle. Now it was his nails driving into her flesh. “Stop needling me!” “Me needling you Rita? You’ve made a pin-cushion of my heart”

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Human Brain, 'Seeing' and Symmetry

So, the human brain then...

When our eyes communicate with the brain as to what they 'see' they are not presenting a complete set of data. Instead they scan a few bits of information for the brain to compare against its template of what reality is, in case those bits of data contain anything 'surprising' or 'off the map'. Figures from research suggest that information from the eye only provide 10-15% of what we see. The brain's pre-set picture of reality is the other 85%. This is because there is just too much information in our reality for the eye to cope with. The short-cutting is how we can interact with our environment speedily and without being overwhelmed, or taking so long that we are eaten or attacked. We take a lot for granted. To wit, the entire image of reality that the brain holds up as a knitting or jigsaw pattern. Our brains posit that human adults are upright creatures and trees also are vertical. The unpredicted and 'strange' are when we see a human or a tree horizontal. Then context comes into play as a modifier. We may not find a human lying down so strange if it is on a bed, or a sunlounger or a lilo. A horizontal tree, well has it been cut down or blown over in a storm? Or was there simply no one to see & hear it fall over and therefore it didn't? Perhaps an example of a left-field logic trying to explain something that doesn't accord to the regular template. 

In order for the brain to hold this template of constancy as to what perceived reality is, it requires pattern. Since our senses are actually searching for deviations from pattern to report to the brain as divergence requiring a possible response. And pattern derives from symmetry. Is it at all surprising that we find symmetry underpins all laws of the universe? (and of course is vital for the hermetic system of mathematics to function, the same maths that defines the physical laws of the universe). We need symmetry to organise and pattern the templates of our brains. Which our brains then stamp on all its interpretations of reality making them symmetrical. Again, I don't really buy into the centrality of symmetry. It just suits our anatomies and how they interact with our environments. And yet there are no straight lines in nature to form an axis of mirror or radial symmetry. Are our faces symmetrical? Not to my mind, but since face recognition is so hard wired into us humans, conceiving of face symmetry is an important value in face recognition so again we overlay it into our processes of seeing other faces. 

So for me my desire as an artist is to get to that 85% picture of reality the brain holds and take an axe to it. Or at least figure out where some of its assumptions/constructions derive from. That way madness lies? I'm pretty confident not. Also to strip away the notions of symmetry where they in fact may not exist, but our brain proffers that they do because it is so reliant on it. And as part of this process, that involves moving away from the symmetries of story, of beginning, middle and end as established by Aristotle in his "Poetics" The argument is that human beings are so constituted that story is naturally very important to us. And indeed it is because story organises events and experience into patterns. But as I suggest above, these patterns do not accord to anything by a workable reality, when in fact we may now strive for something just a bit better than 'workable'. I really believe that our fixed notions of reality hold us back and we would be far more creative and inventive (and who knows less exploitative in our dealings with our environment) if we had say more of a quantum approach to our reality. Just because it's comfortable for our brains to tell us this is how things are, doesn't mean that's the best recipe for going forward. Time for artists to think and write out the box. Visual artists have over a century's head start on us writers as painters like Monet, Cezanne, Seurrat et al challenged the way we 'see' things on a flat 2-dimensional canvas. They explored light, colour and materiality. They did not take their reality as given. 

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Search For Identity

Identity permeates every aspect of our lives. From the informal social dealings as to how (and who) we present ourselves as to other people. Through art as many artists explore notions of identity. All the way to politics as under-represented groups advocate for more visibility or equal treatment and status.

As a writer I tend to steer my work away from questions of identity. In politics I see it as atomising and preventing of any useful consensus that allows us to get things done. However, I fully recognise I can only state this from a position of privilege; that is my identity is not overtly under threat from others and is not ostensibly one that feels under-represented or unequal in society. While this seems the only pertinent argument for identity politics to me, it does also place the whole question within a negative context, one of asserting one's identity in order to overcome prejudices and barriers towards it. That such searches and struggles for identity are inevitably and irrevocably wrapped up and often defined against the prevailing majority identity it is contesting with.

However, I can't help feeling that such questions about identity do not address the real deep issues of what is means to be human. The questions of 'who am I?', 'what have I done?' and 'what am I here for?' that philosophy rather seems to have given up trying to figure out. Existentialist questions. Given that we are mortal and finite, what is the purpose for living a life? The philosophers starting from the Ancient Greeks, picked up by the Christian theologians, took us down quite a narrow path by asking 'what does it mean to lead a GOOD (moral) life?' The humanist philosophers also addressed themselves to this same question, Hobbes and Locke minimising the role of the divine and instead musing how man could live in societal groups without killing one another, from which developed the modern concept of the rule of law.

But these questions it seems to me address only the second layer of fundamental existence- How do we live together? What about the first layer, why are we even here to live at all? It is taken as a given that we exist at all, therefore the consideration is how to maximise the quality of that life on a practical/organisational level. But it is very much not a given and any answer would definitely feedback and inform the notion of how we live our lives. Leaving aside the religious answer of 'to glorify god' which doesn't hold much truck in our contemporary age, little has been done to explore these greater questions. Of course it is entirely possible that there is no answer to the 'why do we exist?' questions. Science and cosmology may not be able to furnish an answer. The blind, motiveless mechanism of DNA reproduction may forever remain blind and impermeable to our understanding. The human brain remains the most complex and unknowable organ in nature, for all our advances in its study. Notwithstanding all this, our current level of inquiry into identity I feel still misses the bigger picture, by remaining firmly rooted within the cultural sphere and finding one's place within that. Somehow we need to root the question in the species sphere.

Over to the artists rather than the philosophers and scientists now. Albeit from an acknowledged position of privilege...