Thursday, 23 January 2020

Marathon 4: The Miniskirt Waddle

70 mins Easy Run. It says a lot about the state of the Gazette these days (probably your local paper too) that I didn't notice a picture of myself on the back page until someone told me about it. The photo came from last Saturday's Great Run Local (a Parkrun tribute. We don't have an actual Parkrun here; the park is on a hill that would be classified as a cliff if it were nearer the water.) The disturbing grin is me laughing; the photographer was telling jokes as we ran past him.

The training plans I've had from the London Marathon and from the NSPCC warn runners off doing weekly races, owing to the injury risk of over-competitiveness. I can't see it myself, but best to follow the plan, so the picture is the last one of me doing a Parkrun until spring. I like to think that when I start doing 5ks again I'll be massively fit, having trained for and run a marathon.

Location: Whitby - Ruswarp Woods, cinder track, Hawsker Lane, Green Lanes, Church St., Larpool Lane. 

Weather: Mild, muddy underfoot.

Outfit: Whitby Running Club vest, almost-matching blue shorts, black trainers.

MusicElvis Costello and the Attractions - BBC Sessions 1977-83 (bootleg) 70 mins.

Someone should put this out. Elvis: The Pre-Eclectic Years.

Elvis Costello has spent decades trying to be a different artist on every album he makes. This became more prevalent from the late 1980s onwards, as he started using different bands, but he was fond of the volte-face even in his youth. By the time he had his first hits, he had already been in a folk duo and a country-rock band, and had played solo with electric guitar like an apolitical Billy Bragg. When he formed the Attractions, they proved willing participants in the game of musical dressing-up.

But that wasn't the whole story. In 1977, the newly-formed band were touring behind the album Costello had made with the Californian band Clover. The earliest tracks show the Attractions wrestling the material away from their predecessors and stamping it as their own with bullying drums, busy basslines and bumper-car organ. Only Blame It On Cain sounds like it did on My Aim Is True, and gives an idea of what the Attractions might have sounded like, had Costello not found himself lumped in with, and to some extent been inspired by, contemporary punk and new wave.

From then on, Costello was writing songs with the band in mind.  (I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea would just be a mean-spirited rant without Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve's mazy duet of a bassline suggesting the confident walk of This Year's Models parading down the Kings Road, set against Costello's stuttering guitar as the 'miniskirt waddle' of a young girl out of her depth in such company.  

As one gets older, ones interest in a particular artiste's personal journey, in which he "confounds expectations" by sounding different, writing a different kind of book, or painting in a different shade of green, diminishes. It is a pleasure sometimes to hear the songs in a different context - or in no context, just as songs. Sometimes rough in execution, these performances represent Costello and the Attractions as an imaginative band with a consistent sound, enthused by new material, playing songs rather than making artistic statements.

Occasionally it gets too rough. Costello's fourth album Get Happy!! was scrapped and then redone in a northern soul style after the initial recordings sounded a mess. A 1980 Peel session suggests that this was wise; good songs are buried under cymbals and slashy guitars. Much better is a Kid Jensen session of country covers - like the contemporary Almost Blue LP, but played with none of that album's Nashville cleanliness (or that might be because it was recorded off-air from Medium Wave.)

Scattered amongst the original material are a Merseybeats B-side, a Dusty Springfield hit, a trampling of Ray Charles' Danger Zone, Costello's own Shipbuilding, 'covering' Robert Wyatt's version, and the Beat's Stand Down Margaret, which reminds you how long ago all of this happened.

It ends with Pills and Soap, an abstract expression of disgust at the media, which reminds you of how little has changed since then. That one sounds modern too, deliberately cut-and-pasted in the way that none of the other material is.

Not a cheery end to 70 minutes well spent.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Marathon 3: Sweet Soul Music

40 mins Easy Run. EJGH is running too, slowly, after over a year injured.

Location: Whitby - Links View, Upgang Lane, sea wall, Promenade, extra bit from the Spiders Web to the White House and back. 5.5km

Weather: Windy but dry.

Outfit: 2019 Poultry Run shirt, best shorts again, black trainers.

Music: Hit The Road Stax - NME Cassette (1983, recorded 1967) 50 mins.

Green Onions: Booker T & The MGs
Red Beans and Rice: Booker T & The MGs
B-A-B-Y: Carla Thomas
Sweet Soul Music: Arthur Conley
Raise Your Hand: Eddie Floyd
Knock On Wood: Eddie Floyd
Last Night: The Mar-Keys
Philly Dog: The Mar-Keys
You Don't Know Like I Know: Sam & Dave
Hold On I'm Comin': Sam & Dave
Respect: Otis Redding
Try A Little Tenderness: Otis Redding

I lost my copy of this tape in a house move, so thank you to whichever illegal download site I got the mp3s from.

The album was intended, I assume, to represent a typical night on the Stax/Volt Revue tour of the UK and Europe in 1967, although with hard-panned 1960s stereo and some brutal edits, it is clear that the recordings come from different concerts. As such the music is better suited to a single speaker on full blast than to earbuds.

It kicks off, as I guess the concerts used to, with Booker T and the MGs' Green Onions. I've seen contemporary videos where the band rushed through the tune, which was an oldie even then. Perhaps the compilers had to trawl through the recordings to get a decent version for this album, but they found a cracker - faster than the record, but not hurried. Duck Dunn's bass is an excited heartbeat and Steve Cropper's guitar is an electric shock. (I could go further with this metaphor - something about paddles and "Clear!" It would get dull.)

Even with the obvious edits, it's not hard to imagine yourself in the audience of this show (I use the term advisedly. This is a show, not a gig.) Vocalists file onstage, introduced by Emperor Rosko, and some of the performances are literally marvellous - full of marvel at the joy of life, love and sex, full of pain at the very same things. Even so, the MGs are the focus, the singers almost incidental.

On side 2 of the tape - after the interval at the show - the Mar-keys take over as the band, and the sound gets a little thinner as a result. Sam and Dave and Otis Redding are anything but incidental. It might just have been a weedier recording.

Hit The Road Stax has far more hits on it than Stax's own record of the tour, The Stax/Volt Revue. I can't find it on the web at the moment, but I'm sure someone will upload it again soon. In the meantime, numerous recordings of live 1960s Stax shows are circulating on the semi-legal/is this out of copyright? market. As a guess, I'd say hear them all. I may run to one of them, later in my schedule, just for the academic interest

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Marathon 2: Desert Blues

Still week 2.

30 mins Easy Run (the talking one, no one to talk to.)

Location: Whitby - Links View, Upgang Lane, sea wall, Promenade. 4.5km

Weather: Fine with high cloud, cold wind.

Outfit: 2019 Scarborough 10k shirt, best shorts, black trainers, Colorado souvenir socks.

MusicEtran De L'Aïr: Music From Saharan Whatsapp. 17 mins.

The wind makes white horses on an otherwise calm North Sea. Stumps of an old pier are visible in the sand beneath the pavilion. Everyone is walking a dog - not the same dog. I have to stop twice to avoid treading on pugs.

I'm doing the beach run, a route that EJGH worked out before I joined in running, and which we've both been doing for ten years. My best for this is 25 minutes and a bit. I'm a long way off that pace these days, plus I'm taking it easy as I'm supposed to, so call it half an hour.

Lesson of the day: Don't try to stream music whilst doing the beach run. There's no phone signal at the beach; I already knew this, so I don't know what I was playing at. The plan was to listen to Etran De L'Aïr on the way down, get into a running groove, then follow it with Head Of Light Entertainment's latest EP on the way up, being buoyed along by melodic sunshine pop. A quarter of an hour each way, job done.

As it was, Etran De L'Aïr fell silent just after I reached the sea wall, and didn't re-emerge until I was past the Crescent on the way up - which was a shame because the skittering rhythms were, if not putting me in a trance, then certainly getting me in a good frame of mind to run. Desert blues is mesmeric or it is nothing. Melodies don't go anywhere, a whole song can go on one chord; Etran De L'Aïr favour two chords and a drone with a djembe rattling along in the background. Riffs are endlessly repetitive, yet never played the same way twice. Tiny variations sound momentous. The vocals on this EP are quiet, possibly not miked up. According to liner notes, it was recorded directly onto a phone, then Whatsapped to the record company, hence the title.

I know what this sounds like: first-world business people and white cultural tourists demanding some sort of gritty authenticity from black African performers. Hard to argue with that, except that the music is genuinely meditative, and the performance is really charming.

That's all I have to say. If you're running, this is 17 minutes of good running music.

Click here for Etran De L'Aïr: Music From Saharan Whatsapp.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Marathon 1: Breathe

Part of me has wanted to run the London Marathon ever since I watched it on TV (filling the gap between the Grand National, the Boat Race and the Cup Final) with my dad in 1981. All that business about the Cutty Sark, the desolate Isle of Dogs (younger readers might like to watch The Long Good Friday), the run up the Mall; crowds, people dressed as chickens, a dusty spring Sunday, Dad getting choked up seeing disabled runners hobbling over the line, the first two lads finishing hand-in-hand. Now a list of clichés, it was new then. The part that wanted to do it was a small part of me, a fraction of my cerebral cortex, or possibly my lizard brain; the rest of me thought it a stupid idea. But now I’m living in North Yorkshire where running is a thing that normal people do, I spend a couple of days a fortnight in London, so there’s a connection; I have several Great North Runs behind me, I’m 54 and if I don’t do it this year I never will.

I should pretend this is week 1 of training, but it’s week 2. Week 1 barely counts as anything - 30 mins Easy Run, 20 mins Jog, 60 mins Easy. “Easy” means you can talk while running. I’m running on my own so that would be evidence of a personal problem. Easy running is not really possible in Whitby for more than a few minutes at a time, owing to the hills. Anyway I did it, and it was 20 minutes of jogging more than I do most weeks. My once-beloved grey Nike Airs have deflated, so I’ve got a sore left heel. Arthritic right knee is a given, but it’s OK - wakes me up maybe once a night, but not for long and fine while running. Otherwise injury and disease-free.

Today is 40 mins Steady Run, during which I should be “slightly out of breath; able to talk, but only in shorter sentences,” which reminds me of a lot of people I know.

Location: North London - Regents Park, Camden (picture taken from Primrose Hill).

Weather: Pissing down.

Outfit: Clapton CFC away shirt, second time round shorts, new trainers, Swedish Chef socks, cap (see weather), plasters on nipples (ditto).

Music: Sturgill Simpson: Sound And Fury. 41 mins.

I wanted to like this album. It’s new. It's the right length for the run. It has drums on it, mostly machine-generated, but they play a beat, not the elongated, compressed-to-lifelessness thhhhhhoccck noise that so many artistes employ to indicate that even the act of keeping time is part of a Significant Emotional And Cultural Statement; which means that these drumbeats help me paddle along London’s burst-drain thoroughfares in a running sort of way. I like Sturgill Simpson too. He’s country and he’s smart; note the title of his first album, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music - I mean, come on, the references! This time he is referencing William Faulkner, as all educated southern Americans have to do sooner or later. (Don’t get me started on The Sound And The Fury though. I can’t get started on it - it’s as impenetrable as it is miserable).

The sound is not that of the two-lane blacktop and the Marshall stack; it is that of analogue synths, washy or siren-y, in the vintage style of Düsseldorf, Sheffield and Basildon, overlaid with practice-amp lead guitar, vocals hiding behind the guitar, and nowhere near enough bass. However, try as he might to hide it, the style is mainstream modern country rock. The thing about Sturgill Simpson is that he thinks he’s an alternative to that, but he isn’t. He is just better at it than all the people who give it a bad name. He plays good muscly lead guitar and has the requisite gravel voice of a blue collar American artist; his set-up / knock-down verses are actually funny or moving, rather than sounding as if they’ve been knocked together in a writers’ meeting.

‘Having one-way conversations with the darkness in my mind
He does all the talking 'cause I'm the quiet kind.’ (Remember To Breathe)

There’s a lot of this, stuff that wouldn’t be out of place on, but is a cut above, any workaday country album.

‘Well, you know daddy likes his alone time
That's why he doesn't have any friends
Yeah, but watch and see, you'll be lookin' at me
The last man standing in the end.’ (Last Man Standing)

It would have been nice to have heard words like these when I was running, rather than reading them on the train home (where I’m writing this) having suspected that there was something worth hearing under the distorted squall.

The best-sounding song (Mercury In Retrograde) has the worst lyrics. I won’t quote them, but Taylor Swift got away with stuff like this for years because she was young and female; it doesn’t do for a grown man to be moaning about ‘haters’ wanting his autograph. However there is melody here, and dynamics in the synthesiser lines which are lacking elsewhere.

Got to hand it to him for making the effort though. Sometimes he sounds like Suicide with real songs; most of the time the sound-concept gets in the way of the material.

A shame to start on a downer. Might have been the rain. It’s 30 mins Easy Run tomorrow, so I’ll need to find something short. Might go for an oldie. Wary of getting into the idea that new music = bad, old stuff = good. Sound And Fury isn’t bad; it’s an experiment in breaking out of Nashville musical habits without giving up on Nashville songwriting. I don’t think the experiment worked, but the next one might, and good luck to him.

The new trainers are holding up. They don’t keep out water at all, but my feet were OK at the end, so presumably they “breathe” or do whatever trainers are supposed to do when you splash through mucky rain in them.

More tomorrow.

Sound And Fury

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Recyclable Letter

Excuse me for writing but I think it’s a shame
That we’re bombing (ENTER REGION, COUNTRY OR STATE),
Killing its children and sealing the fate
Of (COUNTRY OR STATE) and its next generation
Who’ll grow up with war as the default situation.

The likely result of our military action
Will be to make enemies of all who survive
And make it impossible for (COUNTRY/STATE) to thrive.
But at least we’ll have stolen their (ENTER NATURAL RESOURCE),
If you think that’s a good use for the Royal Air Force.

Or perhaps we’re just there to please (ENTER ALLY)
Or to boost (ENTER HOME COUNTRY) internationally
Thus somehow promoting enhanced foreign trade -
As in: “Oi! Buy our goods or else we’ll invade.”
I’m far from convinced that’s the best way ahead
Because people can’t shop or invest when they’re dead.

In conclusion, Sir/Madam/O Great One (NAME OF LEADER),
Before we get caught up in nationalist fever
Can we please hold our horses, then take a deep breath
And not sentence thousands of people to death?
Let’s try to make peace and goodwill our object.

Yours sincerely, love (ENTER OWN NAME) xxx

© Jon Horne 2018

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Mark E Smith: The Last Days

And the band, henceforth group, played on.
Hauled up in a dumb waiter, Health and Safety approved,
ranting, chanting, slurring, blurring the line between sense and prejudice,
our hero, henceforth OH, rises, eyes darting right to left, left to right;
one withered hand strapped to the chair as if electric.
The end, the end is literally nigh.

Middle aged punters, male, formative years much formed
by aforesaid OH, cheer briefly, assuming theatrical ploy.
They see the rodent cheeks, the visible fucking agony,
the two microphones positioned to allow OH to fidget
and manoeuvre himself into position
of least pain whilst still vocalising, and gasp.

And the group played on.
Riff number one: bass-led,
guitars trace double-helix pattern,
its DNA of German/Lancastrian CA ancestry producing
regular and these days planned dissonance.

OH wheeled across boards by wife/kyb, b.voc.
Sober-haired hired hands, suntanned arms beneath untorn sleeves.
Planned dissonance. Seconds of eloquence as diamorphine permits.
False teeth provide added bite. Hell to pay, hell to pay for.
Where once OH paced, now slides down the chair, plants feet on boards
and rocks, fractured, enraptured, if only.

Out on the Merch desk, mirthfully self-identified
hobgoblins lay out apparel, yellow vinyl, silver discs
and check for 4G, re: Mobile Pay. Cash tins open
for punters of Luddite sensibility. Cold imperial measure
in plastic glass imbibed. The group plays on,
muffled by fire doors. Planned dissonance.

A steady stream exit. Disgruntled and/or lachrymose, pause at Merch desk
to recall lank-haired pretender, oddly delicate of feature, part-formed;
then newly-polished spokesman in the Colin/AH Wilson vein,
US wife/gtr, b.voc., unwonted solutions
to planned dissonance - cf. No Bulbs.
Both incarnations available on 180g vinyl with shirt XXL.

Riff number two: bodiddley skip, unselfconscious,
blues accidentals permitted, if accidental. Why dissonance?
Why plan? Middle-class revolting suspects fear
of naked written word. Anyone can bark, we say. OH says:
you try, see if your bark gets anywhere
near this one’s bite. That was months ago.

Later, and on the edge of an industrial estate,
briefly in opioid sleep, OH cannot hear the voice
of replicants in Schindler’s lift. Cannot ask what the fuck.
Not that it was ever any better, he might have added.
Wife/non-NHS carer pushes, clicks and holds door,
aids, unzips, unbuttons, lifts immobile arm, places dictaphone
near face for easy access to brain. Capturing all that might escape
in these last days. Damned dissonance.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Clown White (short story)

He took a long, blood-reddening draft of still, salt air. He had been shut away too long in a tiny room whose three walls and scarlet curtain he could touch at arms’ length. Deep orange crenellate clouds made a lush backdrop to the abbey ruin in the windless hour of sunset, but it was too late to be standing around watching clouds. He stretched and exhaled hugely. A little girl, passing, started at the sound and began to cry. A man bent down to comfort the child, then turned to glare. He met the father’s stare and raised an eyebrow. The father shook his head. If one of his victims still feared him outside, he must be doing something right.

There wasn’t time for any of this. He shouldered his duffel bag and half-ran towards the bridge. It was the worst part of the day for visitors; a few of them in a rush, the rest like pillar boxes, and no one going single file - except that, unusually, everyone got out of his way, even if half of them gave him filthy looks. Grateful for small mercies, he smiled at those who let him through, and as he did so, felt a naggingly familiar sensation on his bottom lip. You are kidding, he said to no one but himself, and ducked into an alley which turned into steps leading to a row of holiday cottages. In deep shadows, he removed a set of plastic fangs, and touched his face to feel the baby-soft coolness of Clown White, like touching soap - that and a hint of cherry-flavoured syrup standing in for dripping blood. He hadn’t taken any of it off, although he distinctly remembered doing so. Or was that yesterday? Well obviously it was, he thought, unless it was the day before, or God knows when before that.

No, he had been at work - not jumping out of a cupboard to frighten children, but cooking, then table-waiting - which, he thought again, is where he should be now. He checked himself for cape, syrup-soaked dress-shirt, ghoulish winkle-pickers, or any other day job accoutrements.

Now very late, he crossed the bridge and turned left. La Gourmande At The Red Lion stood bare-beamed and tasteful among the jet shops and tat parlours, like roasted sea bass on a chip shop menu. Hopes of sneaking into the kitchen unnoticed were dashed as he saw Ken outside, finishing off a cigarette.

“I know, Ken, I’m sorry,” he said as he scurried past the chef.

“Hold it right there. No, on second thoughts - Christ, man, what’s that on your face? Just get inside.”

At least it saved him having to serve the public. After twenty minutes Pete/Pierre the head-waiter had to tell the other kitchen staff to grow up and shut up, as their hooting and heckling could be heard in the restaurant. After that, there were only whispers and snorts. Eventually, Ken stepped in.

“Just go and clean it off, and make sure no one sees you. The rest of you, one more word and you’re on notice, all of you.”

Baked on by two hours over a hot gas hob, it took fifteen punishing minutes of Swarfega to shift the makeup. He returned to his post red-faced and sore. Around nine o’clock, as the streets briefly quietened, there was a lull in orders before the last-chance diners filed in. Ken motioned him outside.

“I don’t know what the joke is, lad. I’ve got Pete on my back now.”

“I took an extra shift. I won’t do it again - well I’ve got to do it tomorrow, but I’ll be here on time.”

“Decide what your job is. I’ve been very understanding with you.”

“I know, I know. Tomorrow I promise I’ll be on time.”

“You’d better be, and without the...” Ken mimed blood dripping down the side of his mouth.

An embarrassed smile. “Yeah.”

A series of orders arrived, sparking frantic activity, which only subsided long after the sitting, when the kitchen was cleared and cleaned in preparation for breakfast.

On leaving the restaurant by the back door, he spotted his father and Jeanne crossing the small market square beneath the old town hall. Jeanne’s ponytail swayed. They stopped and kissed. He could, with some effort, have ducked out of sight and waited for them to be on their way before crossing the square himself, but he was too tired for tact. Jeanne tensed and broke off the embrace as he passed.

“’Ello,” she said, dropping the aitch in an accent as cartoonish as her leather jacket and culottes.

“Hello Jeanne. Hello Dad. Been out?”

“Been to your place, son. Impressed by the belly pork, I must say.”

His father took a deep, self-important breath. He glanced at Jeanne, who nodded in agreement and actually licked her lips. He reddened. It alarmed him that he was so pleased that his cooking had won the approval of his father’s pouting, olive-skinned girlfriend. He wished it was because she was French and knew decent food when she tasted it.

“I didn’t know you’d been in.”

His father pulled Jeanne even closer and touched the top of her head with his chin.

“I thought I’d treat her tonight. Didn’t I, darling? It worked out well. The top was like fine pastry - salivant, you might say. Very good indeed.”

After all the face-scrubbing earlier on, his forced smile was not just figuratively painful. A long silence ensued, broken at last by Jeanne, who said: “Well, goodnight. We shall see you soon, yes? Come for dinner, I will cook.”

“Thanks, yes, I’ll do just that.”

“Goodnight, son.”

‘"’Night Dad.”

So now she’s inviting people round for tea; there’s a development, he thought. He turned around briefly as he continued across the square. They were facing away from him. His father was pointing at something. He had his other hand in Jeanne’s back pocket.

How like himself, he thought miserably, to begrudge his father the pleasure of an exotic woman with a perfectly rounded bottom to grope in full view of anyone who wanted to look.

They might, like pilgrims or tourists, have been be about to climb the abbey steps; or else there was the east pier with its lapping waves and romantic sense of isolation, and still no more than a light breeze to disturb them. They were more likely standing in the middle of the square in order to allow him a head start, since all of them lived on the other side of the river, and had to cross the same small bridge to get home. He hurried onward.

By the time he had climbed the hill, to the once grand house in which he had a tiny studio flat, the fresh air had put him in better spirits. Although tired, he carried on to the end of the road, to the cliff edge. Rabbits scattered and disappeared into their warren. On the horizon, cargo ships fought the current towards the Tees. Until the morning, when he would be Dracula in clown white, fangs and a cape, and in the evening, cook.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Written for the Writers Write 12 Short Stories challenge, Jan.2018