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

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